The U.S. government finally got around to setting restrictions on a chemical that earlier this year made tens of thousands Chinese children ill. They were no doubt spurred into action by the discovery of that same toxin in American baby formula.
Food and Drug Administration officials on Friday set a threshold of 1 part per million of melamine in formula, provided a related chemical is not present. They insisted the formulas are safe.
Just last month the FDA had said setting such a standard was impossible without more studies.
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Though Dr. Stephen Sundlof, FDA's director of food safety, said there had been no new scientific studies since then that would give regulators more safety data, he said the agency was confident in setting the 1 part per million level for either of the chemicals alone. He emphasized that neither of the two tainted samples had both contaminants.
He had no ready explanation for why the level was not set earlier.
"The levels were so low ... that they do not cause a health risk to infants," Sundlof said. "Parents using infant formula should continue using U.S.-manufactured infant formula. Switching away from one of these infant formulas to alternate diets or homemade formulas could result in infants not receiving the complete nutrition required for proper growth and development."
Reacting to news of the contaminated formulas, members of Congress, a national consumer group and the Illinois attorney general have demanded a national recall, something the FDA said made no sense because it had no evidence suggesting that the formula would be dangerous for babies at the levels of contamination found.
After saying it made an error in its data, the FDA on Wednesday produced these results: Nestle's Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron had two positive tests for melamine on one sample; Mead Johnson's Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron had three positive tests on one sample for cyanuric acid.
Separately, a third major formula maker, Abbott Laboratories, told the AP that in-house tests had detected trace levels of melamine in its infant formula.
Those three formula makers manufacture more than 90 percent of all infant formula produced in the United States.
The FDA said it had analyzed 74 samples and was continuing to examine 13 more.
The agency had left the impression of a zero tolerance on Oct. 3 when it stated: "FDA is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."