Former Department of Health minister Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁) yesterday criticized the health authorities for relying on melamine standards set by the US and European countries rather than adopting their own.
The comments were made during a question-and-answer session following a lecture at Academia Sinica, where Chen is a research fellow at the Genomic Research Center.
Chen said the nation’s health officials should conduct a comprehensive health risk assessment of melamine, which should take into consideration the rate of exposure to the agent rather than looking at the tolerable daily intake values set by the US Food and Drug Administration.
“Taiwan should have its own set of melamine standards because we have a higher exposure rate than the US and European countries … If we only follow their standards, then it means we didn’t do our own risk assessment,” Chen said.
Melamine is an industrial chemical used by some Chinese food makers to produce a false high level of protein in a wide variety of foods. The chemical is used to make plastics.
In August, a shipment of 25 tonnes of China-made milk powder containing melamine was found to have been sold in Taiwan, causing panic among consumers. Since then, Taiwan has been engulfed in a food scare, with a number of Taiwanese companies recalling their products after non-dairy creamers imported from China were also found to contain melamine.
Some of the products, however, were allowed to remain on the shelves temporarily last month after the department revised its standard for acceptable levels of melamine content in food to 2.5 parts per million (ppm).
In the face of widespread criticism, the department reverted to a standard for melamine content at “undetectable” using the most sensitive test — liquid chromatography/tandem mass spectrometry — which can detect melamine levels as low as 0.05ppm.
Chen yesterday declined to comment on whether he approved of the manner in which the department has dealt with the melamine scandal, but said there were areas for improvement, such as having clear, evidence-based standards for pulling products from the shelves or for reintroducing them on the market.
“When setting standards [for recalling products], they [health officials] should also consider the impact it will have on the food industry,” he said.
Because of limitations in testing instruments and possible contamination from containers, it is unreasonable to expect zero melamine in foods, but health officials should ensure that the melamine concentration is so low that “it couldn’t have been added on purpose,” Chen said.
During his lecture, titled “the environment, genes and human diseases,” Chen emphasized the importance of disease surveillance and reporting. He used the SARS outbreak of 2003 as an example, saying that the situation would have been much less severe if China had allowed more transparency in its reporting on SARS.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CNA
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