WASHINGTON –The U.S. government can’t track thousands of tons of imported Chinese dairy products -possibly tainted with toxic melamine – to see if they ended up in processed meat products here, so U.S. scientists are counting on a “sampling survey” at grocery stores to find out.
U.S. companies that make sausages, frozen pizzas, baby food and other meat-containing foods use dairy ingredients and that makes them suspect, said David Goldman, head of the office of public health science at U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service. These ingredients include casein, a protein supplement, and whey. But neither the USDA nor the Food and Drug Administration knows which companies buy those ingredients domestically and which buy them from China, where children have died from melamine-contaminated dairy products.
Melamine is a toxic chemical normally used in plastics and fertilizer, but the FDA said it can also be misused to “inflate the apparent protein content” of dairy products. When consumed by humans, though, the chemical can cause kidney stones to develop.
The FDA issued an “import alert” on Nov. 12, ordering the detention of all dairy products or other foods containing dairy ingredients from China. The U.S. imported 4,162 tons of Chinese dairy products last year and 1,750 tons in the first seven months of 2008, according to data maintained by the USDA.
But the FDA does not have authority over meat, so it is up to the USDA to find out if there has been any melamine contamination.
As to what extent the domestic makers of meat products use imported Chinese ingredients and what risk those ingredients might pose to U.S. consumers, Goldman said, “we don’t have any way of knowing.”
And that, he said, is why the USDA, in conjunction with the FDA, is performing this “exploratory assessment” to get “a quick, nationwide snapshot of the extent to which – if at all – there’s a problem with melamine in our (meat) products.”
The assessment begins this week, he said. USDA employees will be pushing carts down grocery aisles, plucking pizzas, baby food, hot dogs, meatballs and other products. They will pay for them and then ship them to a laboratory in Athens, Ga., for melamine testing.
Forty five products will be collected and tested each week for 12 weeks, for a total of 540.
-By Bill Tomson, Dow Jones Newswires; 202-646-0088; [email protected]
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