As melamine alerts reverberate around the world in the wake of China's dairy export industry, it affords us an opportunity to look at bad chemistry while considering the scale of the global food market. And how vulnerable consumers are when garden-variety greed, not terrorism, is the driver in mass poisonings.
In the first quarter of last year, the Chinese company, Xuzhou Anying, was advertising dust of melamine as something it called "ESB protein powder" on the global market trading website, Alibaba. "The latest product, ESB protein powder, which is researched and developed by Xuzhou Anying Biologic Technology Development Co., Ltd... Contains protein 160 - 300 percent, which solves the problem for shortage of protein resource," it boasted.
Awkwardly worded and a bit fishy, it nevertheless apparently hooked North American pet food makers and animal feed distributors - specifically ChemNutra, Menu Foods and Wilbur-Ellis - who lost control of their supply chain and weren't able to resist claims - which should surely have raised eyebrows - for an apparently magical protein powder. In this way, melamine found its way into a great deal of pet food as a protein extender. Xuzhou's money gig ended when someone went too far and upped the dose enough to cause precipitation in the kidneys, killing and sickening a large but not easy to track number of pets.
News stories from a year ago initially noted that melamine was not originally thought to be that toxic. But, at the time, few knew that it had a use as a processed food adulterant chosen specifically because it tested as protein. Paradoxically, it's also used in chemical combination with urea to make plastics, one example being toilet seats made in China, and bought at the local hardware store by this writer.
China makes a lot of melamine and the country also manufactures and exports tens of billions of dollars worth of powders and concentrates for use in processed food. Readers can see where this is going. Completely stamping out criminal rings making and diverting melamine for use in processed food is going to be a long process, if it can be done at all.
Ironically, urea used to be used as a food adulterant, too. In the US, as late as 1985 the compound had been used to step on wheat to boost nitrogen determinations and profit for the seller.
Now, just in case one gets the idea this is bagging on China too much, consider it takes two parties to make this crime work. The people who make and sell the melamine. And the western firms in the food industry working the territory for the best possible deals, in the process giving up tight supervision and quality control of their suppliers.