Food Tainting Update: Melamine Spiking A Common Practice in China

At first, Chinese officials denied even shipping wheat gluten to the US in the first place, though it has since come to light that despite America being one of the world’s largest wheat producers, companies here find it cheaper to import gluten–which requires a certain amount of labor and processing of the grain–from China. This weekend, however, New York Times writer David Barboza, reporting from Zhangqiu, found numerous grain and food-processing workers and management willing to talk about what must seem like old news to them–namely, that adding melamine to grain products in order to boost protein-content readings (and market price) is a common practice in China:

ZHANGQIU, China, April 28 — As American food safety regulators head to China to investigate how a chemical made from coal found its way into pet food that killed dogs and cats in the United States, workers in this heavily polluted northern city openly admit that the substance is routinely added to animal feed as a fake protein.

For years, producers of animal feed all over China have secretly supplemented their feed with the substance, called melamine, a cheap additive that looks like protein in tests, even though it does not provide any nutritional benefits, according to melamine scrap traders and agricultural workers here.

“Many companies buy melamine scrap to make animal feed, such as fish feed,” said Ji Denghui, general manager of the Fujian Sanming Dinghui Chemical Company, which sells melamine. “I don’t know if there’s a regulation on it. Probably not. No law or regulation says ‘don’t do it,’ so everyone’s doing it. The laws in China are like that, aren’t they? If there’s no accident, there won’t be any regulation.”

[…..]

Last Friday here in Zhangqiu, a fast-growing industrial city southeast of Beijing, two animal feed producers explained in great detail how they purchase low-grade wheat, corn, soybean or other proteins and then mix in small portions of nitrogen-rich melamine scrap, whose chemical properties help the feed register an inflated protein level.

Melamine is the new scam of choice, they say, because urea — another nitrogen-rich chemical — is illegal for use in pig and poultry feed and can be easily detected in China as well as in the United States.

“People use melamine scrap to boost nitrogen levels for the tests,” said the manager of the animal feed factory. “If you add it in small quantities, it won’t hurt the animals.”

The manager, who works at a small animal feed operation here that consists of a handful of storage and mixing areas, said he has mixed melamine scrap into animal feed for years.

He said he was not currently using melamine. But he then pulled out a plastic bag containing what he said was melamine powder and said he could dye it any color to match the right feed stock.

He said that melamine used in pet food would probably not be harmful. “Pets are not like pigs or chickens,” he said casually, explaining that they can afford to eat less protein. “They don’t need to grow fast.”

The resulting melamine-tainted feed would be weak in protein, he acknowledged, which means the feed is less nutritious.

But, by using the melamine additive, the feed seller makes a heftier profit because melamine scrap is much cheaper than soy, wheat or corn protein.

“It’s true you can make a lot more profit by putting melamine in,” said another animal feed seller here in Zhangqiu. “Melamine will cost you about $1.20 for each protein count per ton whereas real protein costs you about $6, so you can see the difference.”

Crossposted at litbrit.

13 Comments

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13 responses to “Food Tainting Update: Melamine Spiking A Common Practice in China

  1. I can’t thank you enough, LitBrit, for staying on top of this story as you have. You should get a blogging investigative journalism award!

    George Soros, where are you NOW to sponsor a nice big award? For LitBrit? Sheesh.

    I am in the midst of writing a feature article on-you guessed it- making your own pet food!

  2. Litbrit,

    I was sitting at an outside table at my favorite cafe on Saturday, next to a really nice couple with a delightful dog. He was a black and white, medium-large, very smart collie-mix with a big grin. I told the couple that I wasn’t sure if there was a risk here in Ireland, but they should check out your stories here at Shakesville because they hadn’t even heard what was going on at all.

    Thanks so much for staying on this!

  3. I second those comments.

    If I want to know what’s going on in the world, I come to Shakesville. Thanks, litbrit.

  4. Em

    All of this reminds me of when they used to feed old horses arsenic–just a little–b/c it causes fluid retention and swelling and horses in poor condition would look for a day or two like they had some muscle. Then after the sale it’d work out of their systems and the the buyer would realize the truth. Horrible.

  5. As with so many things, it always comes down to the dollar. And that sounds so cliche, but here we are.

    Libertarians, with whom I agree on so many things–government should stay out of my bedroom, for one–oppose more regulation of food, but as Stephen has pointed out, the Magic Market Pixie Dust does not solve things like this in a satisfactory way: by the time consumers are aware how bad a product or ingredient is, many have been sickened or killed.

    There are some areas in which government oversight is mandatory, because allowing self-regulation, or permitting for-profit organizations to manage them, means that all decisions boil down to the Almighty Dollar. It is cheaper to use poor-quality and even dangerous ingredients in food; it is cheaper to import ingredients from places that have few or no regulations and oversight; it is cheaper to use foreign labor.

    So without strong laws and meaningful government oversight and regulation, the profit-motive means our food, and our medicines and vitamins, and our pets’ food, reflect whatever level the companies who made it sank to in order to make money.

  6. Constant Comment

    I mentioned this in earlier comments, but it bears repeating: please check out http://www.howl911.com for all up-to-date developments on pet food products. It is an excellent site for keeping on top of what has or has not been recalled. Thanks, litbrit, for the continuing reports.

  7. Arkades

    Libertarians, with whom I agree on so many things—government should stay out of my bedroom, for one—oppose more regulation of food, but as Stephen has pointed out, the Magic Market Pixie Dust does not solve things like this in a satisfactory way: by the time consumers are aware how bad a product or ingredient is, many have been sickened or killed.

    I totally agree, Litbrit, and I’ll even go further: the Libertarian’s model of self-correcting market only works if consumers have the info needed to make informed shopping decisions. Yet most manufacturers won’t provide information that may potentially turn people off buying their product, unless they’re required to do so. Required in what manner? Well… when was the last time sheer popular demand (rather than government regulation) inspired food manufacturers to be more forthcoming?

    For example: I would totally pay more for pet food that is guaranteed 100%-melamine-free. Heck, even a ‘produced in the USA with no imported ingredients’ label would improve my confidence somewhat. But unless there’s a huge consumer boycott of products using cheap imported (and, it appears, ‘doped’) protein sources, there’s no incentive for manufacturers to change their behavior.

    We can still boycott, of course, but how to tell which companies are safe and which are deadly? Are the companies that haven’t had a recall truly using a more responsible set of business practices, or have they just been lucky so far and not been burned by their suppliers yet? Is the crisis over, or just starting?

    Remember back in the 80s when Made in the USA was such a big deal that Wal-Mart used it in their advertising? Where did all of *that* sentiment go, hmmm? Seems like no one cares to buy American if the profit margins are better elsewhere. For that matter, too many American producers will but cheap ingredients and make the stuff here and pretend it’s still a product of domestic origin.

    Not only does the Free Market not magically fix anything, it practically guarantees that crap like this will happen because it will continuously drive producers to cut costs *until* some corrective force prevents additional cost cutting. In this case, demonstrated lack of safety was required to put on the brakes, and untold numbers of companion animals paid for it with their well-being or their lives.

    Maybe some people can shrug and say, ‘the market will correct things now that the problem is known’, but I would argue that any system that would let things get that bad in the first place is already deeply and horribly broken.

  8. Erin M

    @ Arkades

    “Made in USA” lost a lot of its cachet when it was discovered those cheap American-made t-shirts were coming from the Northern Mariana Islands, a US commonwealth and labor law-free zone, but being a commonwealth could still use the label legitimately. Caveat emptor and all.

  9. Seems like no one cares to buy American if the profit margins are better elsewhere.

    You cannot buy “made in America” if no stores sell it anymore. I challenge you to go to any clothing store around and find anything made in USA. It’s just not there.

    On the other hand, even union members are now looking more to their bank accounts than supporting other union members. Where hubby works they have the choice of usa or non union non usa workboots, and the usa ones are 50 bucks more. They even get a workboot allowance for the difference. Too many union members choose the (free because of the allowance) non-usa boots.

    Solidarity is the only answer.

  10. As with so many things, it always comes down to the dollar.

    The Chinese people always were great capitalists at heart.

    I notice no-one has mentioned the elbow-twisting that the US government put on China to get tobacco restrictions lifted so US companies could move in on that market. Payback’s a bitch, ain’t it?

  11. Phranqlin

    But the FDA has done such a wonderful job of protecting consumers from tainted spinach, green onions, peanut butter, hamburger, and so forth. I’m sure they would never, ever in a billion years allow adulterated products or additives to make their way into the food chain.

  12. puddlejumepr

    We’re lucky it was just pets that died from the intentionally poisoning of their food to jack up profits. Wait until the day large number of people sicken and die from some mass market item that manufactures have found more profitable to have made for them in Communist China.

  13. steadmans

    I wonder what else they are doing to us?

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