Melamine Scare Expands After Alabama Finds Tainted Chinese Cookies

WASHINGTON, DC, October 17, 2008 (ENS) - Chinese cookies found in Alabama stores have tested positive for high levels of the plastic melamine, triggering a demand from consumer organizations for a federal government ban on all food products from China containing milk proteins.

The recent deaths of four infants and the illnesses of 53,000 other children in China linked with the consumption of infant formula containing melamine have not resulted in a ban in the United States, although individual products, such as White Rabbit candy and Mr. Brown drinks, have been recalled.

The chemical is used in plastics manufacturing and as an illegal additive in foods to simulate protein and it was linked to massive pet food recalls across the United States in 2007.

Two weeks ago the U.S. Food and Drug Administration set "acceptable" levels for melamine in human food, but this measure has not kept contaminated products out of U.S. stores.

On Wednesday, the Alabama Department of Agriculture announced that Koala's March brand cookies found in Alabama stores have tested positive for melamine with levels that exceed the FDA's stated safe levels of exposure.

Alabama Agriculture and Industries Commissioner Ron Sparks said the department's Pesticide Residue Laboratory confirmed the presence of melamine in the strawberry and chocolate flavors of the cookies and advised consumers to discard the products.

The FDA has not issued a recall for the product, and despite assurances from the agency that the parent company, Lotte USA, is removing the product from the marketplace, Koala's March cookies are still present on U.S. shelves.

Food and Water Watch, a national consumer advocacy group, is demanding that the federal government follow the example of other countries that have closed their borders to Chinese dairy products and immediately issue a recall for Koala's March cookies.

"It is completely unacceptable that FDA has not issued a recall for a contaminated product that is on U.S. shelves and ending up in the homes of American consumers and their families," said Food and Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter.

"What's alarming is that not only had a product been found in stores where it shouldn't have been in the first place, but it also had exceeded FDA's safe levels for human consumption," said Hauter. "This just makes it more apparent that without a complete ban on all Chinese dairy products, FDA is incapable of protecting American consumers."

The FDA says there is no level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns, but on October 3, the federal agency set an acceptable level of 2.5 parts per million melamine in other foods.

"This conclusion assumes a worst case exposure scenario in which 50 percent of the diet is contaminated at this level, and applies a 10-fold safety factor to the Tolerable Daily Intake to account for any uncertainties," the FDA said.

The FDA says it has taken, and will continue to take, "proactive measures to help ensure the safety of the American food supply."

In conjunction with state and local officials, the FDA says it will continue to check Asian markets for food items that are imported from China and that could contain "a significant amount" of milk or milk proteins.

The FDA has broadened its domestic and import sampling and testing of milk-derived ingredients and finished food products containing milk, such as candies, desserts, and beverages that could contain these ingredients from Chinese sources. Milk-derived ingredients include whole milk powder, non-fat milk powder, whey powder, lactose powder, and casein.

FDA officials said on a teleconference call October 8 that the Koala's March cookies the agency had tested were safe and they were working with the parent company and its U.S. subsidiary to get the product out of U.S. stores.

To date, Hong Kong, Macau, Canada and France have all banned the Koala March's cookies.

The European Commission is tightening its rules on Chinese imports, recently announcing that it will ban milk-containing products from China, and will test all other Chinese milk-containing products that are already in the EU.

"We cannot take FDA at their word that dairy products from China are safe, since at this point it seems that FDA is more concerned with promoting imports than protecting consumers," said Hauter. "It is time for FDA to follow the lead of countries around the world that have taken precautionary steps to protect their citizens by banning imports of Chinese dairy products and processed foods that contain Chinese milk ingredients."

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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