Wed, Oct 08, 2008 - Page 8 News List

How to keep chemicals far from the dinner table

By Chang Yeh-Shen 張葉森

Taiwan has the highest rate of kidney dialysis patients per capita in the world. This is not a sign that our national health insurance system is doing its job, but rather the result of excessive and even abusive reliance on medicines and of rampant contamination in our food. The latter problem is related to the government’s failure to implement strict screening procedures to block tainted imports from China.

In Anhui Province in 2004, hundreds of babies suffered malnutrition and 13 died after being fed fake baby formula with virtually no nutritional value. The malnourished infants developed what doctors called “big head disease,” where infants’ heads grew abnormally large while their bodies wasted away.

Subsequently, 33 kinds of substandard milk powder were seized. Later it was reported that the milk powder had been repackaged and sold on the market as a result of corruption and collusion between local governments and private firms.

In March this year, thousands of babies across China were diagnosed with kidney stones and tens of thousands were hospitalized. Seven babies have died so far in this latest milk powder debacle. Following a Chinese government investigation, 22 brands of infant formula were found to be contaminated with the chemical melamine.

Melamine is not in itself deadly. When it is added to poor-quality milk powder to increase the apparent protein content, however, it can cause nutritional deficiencies such as “big head disease.” It also causes kidney and urethral stones and impairs the filtration and reabsorption functions of the renal tubules. In the end it can cause kidney failure, after which dialysis is required for survival.

Twenty-five tonnes of milk powder imported from China’s Zhongshi Duqing (Shandong) Biotech Co have been found to contain up to 2,563 parts per million (ppm) of melamine. Earlier last month, Taiwan’s King Car Industrial Co commissioned tests on its products, which found that some of its instant coffees and one of its soups made with ingredients from China contained melamine.

The spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, Li Weiyi (李維一) dismisses the tests conducted in Taiwan and claimed the products were melamine-free.

Rather than offering solutions to the problem, the Department of Health loosened the limit for melamine in food to 2.5ppm from zero ppm, with no regard to the 2ppm standard applied to animal feed in Hong Kong and China.

While European countries and the US employ gas chromatography with tandem quadruple mass spectrometry (GC-MS/MS) and liquid chromatography mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS) with a detection minimum of 0.005ppm to identify toxic substances in aquatic plants and animals, until recently Taiwan employed high-pressure liquid chromatography with a sensitivity of only 2ppm to examine Chinese mitten crab tainted with carcinogenic nitrofurans and chloramphenicol that can cause aplastic anemia.

Following repeated calls from experts, the government finally adopted GC-MS/MS and LC-MS/MS last year and managed to prevent tainted mitten crab from being imported from China. The change served to protect public health and revive domestic aquaculture.

While the public is apprehensive about toxic milk powder from China, the government should call on concerned organizations to inspect imported products using their hundreds of advanced mass spectrometers. With the right policies, public health can be protected and Taiwan will eventually escape from the nightmare of being the “kingdom of kidney dialysis.”

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