Monday, April 30, 2007

More Melamine

It's not just for your countertops. It can be for the belly of your pets and even for your belly! The reason is that melamine is cheaper to add to animal fodder than real protein and that it registers as protein. The fodder then looks like it is rich in protein and sells at a higher price. The manufacturer makes more and everybody is happy. Medears, this is how the free market of the conservative daydreams sometimes works.

Or so it seems to work in China, the source of that contaminated pet food you may have read about. Too bad that many cats and dogs had to die for us to find out about the melamine. Though of course nobody knows just exactly how many pets have died, because nobody is keeping those burdensome bureaucratic books on all this stuff. Isn't it fun to get a glimpse into the operation of a totally unregulated (free!) market? You see, melamine isn't poisonous, so who cares if it isn't exactly food. All those dead pets? Well, perhaps they didn't stir the melamine hard enough this time. But the market would self-correct over time, I'm sure, and stir harder in the future. Or find something else that registers as protein but doesn't cost as much as protein.

Is this only about the pet food market? Read the following quote:

The Food and Drug Administration has already banned imports of wheat gluten from China after it received more than 14,000 reports of pets believed to have been sickened by packaged food. And last week, the agency opened a criminal investigation in the case and searched the offices of at least one pet food supplier.

The Department of Agriculture has also stepped in. On Thursday, the agency ordered more than 6,000 hogs to be quarantined or slaughtered after some of the pet food ingredients laced with melamine were accidentally sent to hog farms in eight states, including California.

The pet food case is also putting China's agricultural exports under greater scrutiny because the country has had a terrible food safety record.

In recent years, for instance, China's food safety scandals have involved everything from fake baby milk formulas and soy sauce made from human hair to instances where cuttlefish were soaked in calligraphy ink to improve their color and eels were fed contraceptive pills to make them grow long and slim.

For their part, Chinese officials dispute any suggestion that melamine from the country could have killed pets. But regulators here on Friday banned the use of melamine in vegetable proteins made for export or for use in domestic food supplies.

Yet what is clear from visiting this region of northeast China is that for years melamine has been quietly mixed into Chinese animal feed and then sold to unsuspecting farmers as protein-rich pig, poultry and fish feed.

Accidentally? Perhaps. On the other hand, has anybody tested the fodder intended for the animals humans eat? And what is the Food And Drug Administration doing? Well, they have blocked the imports of certain types of gluten from certain sources which is like closing the door after the horse bolted (scared of melamine in the oats), and they have also given a press conference on the safety of eating pork-with-melamine:

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. Through the salvaging practice, melamine-tainted pet food has likely contaminated America's livestock for as long as it has been killing and sickening America's pets — as far back as August of 2006, or even earlier. And while it may seem alarmist to suggest without absolute proof that Americans have been eating melamine-tainted pork, chicken and farm-raised fish for the better part of a year, the FDA and USDA seem to be preparing to brace Americans for the worst. In an unusual, Saturday afternoon joint press release, the regulators tasked with protecting the safety of our nation's food supply go to convoluted lengths to reassure the public that eating melamine-tainted pork is perfectly safe.

In a fit of reverse-homeopathy the press release steps us through the dilution process, tracing the path of melamine-tainted rice protein through the food system. The rice protein is a partial ingredient in pet food, we are told, which is itself only a partial ingredient in the feed given to hogs, who then "excrete" some of the melamine in their urine. And, "even if present in pork," they reassure us, "pork is only a small part of the average American diet."

All this makes me very angry. See how "free markets" can work:

The origin within China of the wheat gluten and rice protein concentrate remains murky. For example, ChemNutra's source for the two vegetable proteins, Suzhou Textile Import and Export Co., told The AP that food ingredients aren't part of its business _ but that employees often take on side deals. Stern said ChemNutra dealt with the company's president.

The FDA has blocked wheat gluten imports from a second Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co. That company has told AP it bought the ingredient from other undisclosed firms and then sold it to Suzhou Textile.

It appears that a textile firm has been selling gluten to American pet food manufacturers. Or perhaps an employee of the textile firm has been selling it? And the FDA sternly blocked any further sales from that company and others already caught! So decisive, so exhaustive! Don't you feel safe now?

Of course the Republican administration doesn't like to regulate firms that much:

The link to China has set off concerns among critics of the Food and Drug Administration that ingredients in pet food as well as human food, which are increasingly coming from abroad, are not being adequately screened.

"They have fewer people inspecting product at the ports than ever before," says Caroline Smith DeWaal, the director of food safety for the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington. "Until China gets programs in place to verify the safety of their products, they need to be inspected by U.S. inspectors. This open-door policy on food ingredients is an open invitation for an attack on the food supply, either intentional or unintentional."

Inspecting imports would just waste taxpayers' hard-earned money, you see. Let the markets decide.