The melamine scare widens as the chemical has been found not only in instant coffee, milk tea, puddings, chicken-and-corn soup and ready-to-serve packs of healthy grain drinks, but also in cheese powder packs offered by a local pizza franchise.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said that melamine is abused by food producers because its high nitrogen content registers as high protein level readings in food products, and boosts profits from diluted milk powder.
“[Adding melamine] is like playing a trick on the machine,” said Lin Ja-liang (林杰樑), director of clinical toxicology at Chang Gung Memorial Hospital.
If consumed at high levels, melamine can lead to kidney failure and even death, Lin said.
Adding melamine to products to make instruments detect a higher level of protein is nothing new, Lin said, referring to the incidents last year when melamine was found in Chinese-made animal feeds that caused the deaths of many dogs and cats in the US and elsewhere because of kidney failure.
Hsieh Teh-sheng (謝德生), director of the Taiwan Urological Association and chief of Cathay General Hospital’s Department of Urology, said there have been no studies in Taiwan about how melamine’s effect on humans.
Lin said the food scandal in China is the first time human consumption of melamine has been found.
“Of course, we don’t know enough yet about what melamine can do to humanAs. Current experiments have only been on animals,” he said.
Lin urged the group of food safety experts that left for Beijing on Saturday to gather as much information as they can on the current symptoms of the babies sickened from melamine.
“This is precious information … We can use it to know whether melamine affects humans and animals differently,” Lin said. “We could also use the information to help us discover early signs [of sickness].”
On Tuesday, the Department of Health (DOH) announced that free check-ups are available for six months at 24 hospitals under the DOH administration, and that those who are at high risk of kidney stones may receive free ultrasounds.
As many as a thousand adults and children have received checks each day since the free checkups started, said Lin Shoei-loong (林水龍), chairman of the North Regional Alliance of DOH Hospitals and superintendent of Taipei Hospital.
Hsieh said the toxicity level of melamine is “not particularly high” and that kidney stones or other sicknesses thought to have been caused by melamine “could just as easily be caused by other harmful chemicals.”
“The important thing is to keep your body hydrated and have a balanced diet,” he said. “A person who has a habit of drinking, say, six cups of three-in-one instant coffee a day and doesn’t drink any water at all may develop kidney stones even if the coffee isn’t contaminated.”
However he added that cyanuric acid and melamine are usually found together and the chemical reaction between the two — regardless of the melamine concentration — tend to form crystals that lead to uric acid stones.
The DOH’s management of the milk scandal and attitude toward food safety has come under criticism from toxicology and public health experts.
Lew-ting Chih-yin (丁志音), associate professor of National Taiwan University’s Department of Public Health, said she was disappointed in the way the government handled the situation, from both a mother’s and a professional’s point of view.
“Milk and dairy products are found in so many different products,” she said. “If the standard isn’t strict enough, how do we know what kind of foods are safe to eat?”
The government needs to apply strict standards and not tolerate any presence of melamine, she said.
Lin Ja-ling agreed, saying that “the Council of Agriculture is doing the right thing by insisting on the strictest standards so the contamination does not get into our food supply.”
“Who would have thought melamine would be added to food? This situation is a good reminder that the government should do a better job of screening and set up a precautionary system so we do not have to rely on other [countries] telling us,” he said.
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