Mon, Oct 06, 2008 - Page 3 News List

FEATURE : Debate over melamine limit not over: experts

By Shih Hsiu-Chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

While lauding the government for choosing the best technology available to detect melamine in food products, some health experts said more must be done to ensure accuracy and overall food safety.

The weeks-long controversy over which method to use to test for traces of melamine in foods didn’t end with the Department of Health’s decision on Wednesday to use liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry (LC-MS/MS).

LC-MS/MS testing is capable of detecting melamine levels as low as 0.05 parts per million (ppm).

The department said the method would be used to test for melamine in the raw materials imported for use in creamers, milk powder and baby formula.

But the method to test for melamine in other, finished products remained unclear, with the department saying it would only conduct random checks of 20 percent of finished creamers, milk powders and baby formulas from “high-risk countries.”

Chan Chang-chuan (詹長權), a public health professor at the Institute of Occupational Medicine and Industrial Hygiene at National Taiwan University, praised health officials for choosing LC-MS/MS.

The technique is 500 times more sensitive in detecting melamine than high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), which was previously favored by the health department.

A provisional statement by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on June 7 said that the European Commission had recommended that all EU member states use gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) to analyze imports of wheat gluten and other raw materials from developing countries — in particular China.

The statement came after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) used the method to test for melamine and similar compounds in wheat gluten and pet food ingredients from China.

Toxic ingredients from China killed or sickened thousands of dogs and cats in the US last year, prompting a public outcry.

The WHO has said that as of Sept. 25, more than 54,000 infants and children in China had been taken to hospitals and clinics for treatment of urinary problems — such as renal tube blockages and kidney stones — related to the presence of melamine in infant formula and other dairy products.

The WHO also said that more than 14,000 infants had been hospitalized after ingesting the contaminated formula, of which a little less than 13,000 remained in hospitals.

“LC-MS/MS is a more precise instrument than GC-MS, so it is good [that the health department adopted the former]. But what is more important is that we should make our own risk assessment of melamine, given Taiwan’s close relationship with and proximity to China,” Chan said.

Whether the tolerable limit of melamine set by the government is in line with international safety standards has been a source of debate since the melamine scare erupted last month.

The health department came under fire when it decided on Sept. 24 to use HPLC to test for melamine and to change the safety limit for the chemical from zero ppm to 2.5ppm, meaning products containing up to 2.5ppm of melamine would not be blocked.

Department of Health minister Lin Fang-yue (林芳郁) resigned the following day in response to fierce public criticism.

But when Yeh Ching-chuan (葉金川) took over Lin’s post on Sept. 26 and announced that LC-MS/MS would be used instead of HPLC, Nestle, one of the leading makers of infant and adult milk products, was quick to object.

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