Sunday, January 4, 2009


The sickening news about melamine tainted milk powder made in China will remain in memory for the sheer indifference by food industry there to the value of human life. If such a thing has happened in India, that will also be equally contemptible with no reservation. It may be recalled that last year Chinese made infant food formula killed 6 children and sickened 2, 94,000 others and the problem was traced to melamine, a chemical used in plastic dish wares with potential to cause urinary problems such as kidney stones and renal failure. It became clear that melamine was deliberately added to fluid milk to boost its Nitrogen content and consequently give a false protein reading enabling the milk vendors to collect higher prices for their consignments. Whether the perpetrators were aware of the consequences of their adulteration or it was deliberately done unmindful of the damages that would be caused, is still not known.

Close on the heels of the above tragedy comes the news that melamine is a 'darling' chemical in China as it finds use as a Nitrogen-boosting additive in many products. It was routinely added to feed formulations for fish and animals. As a preferred partner of China, the country that experienced the maximum damage was USA. In 2007 pet foods from China killed thousands of domestic dogs and cats but no one dared to challenge China, probably not to sour the 'cozy' relationship. Now that melamine was found to be in fish feeds also made in China, there are worries regarding the safety of fish imported from that country. USA is again the sufferer because it imported $ 2 billion worth of shrimp, catfish, tilapia, salmon and other fish in 2007. The situation is alarming because fish fed on such feeds containing melamine absorbs and accumulates the chemical in its body, posing serious health risks to fish consumers where as with cows and pigs residue might not be a serious problem.

Surprisingly US FDA does not have a melamine testing pre-requisite before clearing import consignments though they are strict with other countries when it comes to consumer safety. However increased vigil on Chinese shipments consequent to the melamine contamination episode has resulted in detention of more and more containers of fish originating from China at various US Ports. In November 2008 alone, 26 containers of imported Chinese shrimp have been detained suspecting safety problems with them. It is sad that such merchants of death exist in China also despite the authoritarian regime that boasts of severe punishment regime for crimes like this. These incidences do reflect on the Chinese system which allows manufacture of melamine in the country but did not anticipate its misuse in foods with lethal consequences.

The late awakening in USA regarding the vulnerability of Chinese safety monitoring infrastructure to such abuses, seems to have motivated the country to set up 3 regional offices of FDA in China vested with the responsibility of more intrusive inspection and assessment of foods originating from there before clearing the shipments. The lesson from this saga is that there is no substitute to eternal vigilance when it comes to food safety and no country, however powerful it may be, can lower its guard against social criminals who perpetrate such crimes against humanity for short term financial gains. A country like India with a Food Safety and Standards Authority in place to assure its citizens about the safety of food they eat every day, is thousand times more vulnerable than China because the so called "Authority" is a paper tiger with no power to do any thing in a federal structure as we have here. Democracy should not be doled out as an excuse to put in place a regime with "teeth" that will pursue the perpetrators of food related crimes even to the hell!


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