WASHINGTON – Tiny traces of melamine, the chemical that has set off a global food safety scare, are not harmful in most foods, except baby formula, government experts said Friday.
The Food and Drug Administration said Friday its safety experts have concluded that eating a minuscule amount of melamine – 2.5 parts per million – would not raise health concerns, even if a person ate food every day that was tainted with the chemical.
“It would be like if you had a million grains of sand and they were all white, and you had two or three that were black, that’s kind of the magnitude,” said Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA’s food safety program.
The FDA guideline is meant to help federal and state investigators checking for contaminated foods from China at ports of entry and in Asian community groceries around the country. “We are trying to identify products that have levels we are really concerned about, rather than trying to find the last molecule,” Sundlof said.
For example, melamine levels in imported Chinese candies recalled last week in California were as high as 520 parts per million, about 200 times greater than the level set on Friday by the FDA for “tolerable” risk.
In China, melamine-tainted formula has sickened more than 54,000 children, mainly with kidney problems, and is being blamed for the deaths of at least four. The industrial chemical has also turned up in products sold across Asia, ranging from candies, to chocolates, to coffee drinks, all of which used dairy ingredients from China.
In the U.S., White Rabbit candies from China were recalled after authorities in California and Connecticut found melamine. And Friday, a New Jersey company announced it was recalling a yogurt-type drink from China, Blue Cat Flavor Drink, after FDA testing found melamine.
No illnesses have been reported in the U.S., but authorities are checking for any telltale increase in reports of kidney problems.
The FDA says infant formula sold here is safe, because manufacturers do not use any ingredients from China. But officials expect more melamine recalls as they continue to test products in ethnic markets.
Infant formula sold to U.S. consumers must be completely free of melamine. “There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern,” the FDA said.