Taiwanese government responses to the toxic milk crisis: measurement of Melamine
China’s baby formula has been found to contain Melamine, a chemical compound commonly used in the manufacture of resins, plastics and glues. In Europe, the addition of Melamine in food and animal feed is prohibited. The World Health Organisation (WHO) calls the toxic milk crisis which stemmed from China one of the largest food safety events the agency has had to deal with in recent years. While the whole world is banning milk products from China and sticking to the 0 Melamine standard, let’s see how the Chinese government and Ma’s government handle this problem.
As usual, China covered up this problem over summer because of the Olympics and delayed recalls of products. WHO claimed that they only learned about this problem on 11th September 2008, by which time, the tainted products had been sold everywhere, turning this food safety scare into a global scandal. Well, top Chinese officials have exclusive supply of organic food for them and their families, which probably took away their sense of responsibility and urgency.
On 14th September, when China’s Department of Health Party Official, Gao Qiang, addressed this problem in a press conference, he claimed that the tainted products only came from a brand called Sanlu and had only been sold ‘domestically to our Taiwan province’. Well, who else can minimise responsibilities and politicise it to their advantage at the same time better than the Chinese government? They don’t even let go of this opportunity to claim sovereignty over Taiwan and make it a ‘domestic’ issue.
At the Taiwanese end, the government did not have any clear strategy for days. Some sceptics already thought that Ma’s government was waiting for ‘instructions’ or ‘signs’ from Beijing. Before Ma’s government implemented any measure to minimise damage, King Car, a well established Taiwanese company, was the first to send samples of their products to the Food Industry Research and Development Institute in Taiwan to have them tested. When test results confirmed the existence of Melamine in eight of their products, they immediately issued an apology and recalled all the products likely to be tainted. Because of the good business ethics they showed, although King Car is suffering a great financial loss and being banned from the US, it has become the only body many Taiwanese will trust once the company got this mess sorted.
It was announced on 22nd September that based on King Car’s investigation, the toxin came from the raw materials they imported from a Chinese company, Duqing between 9th April and 16th September 2008. On 23 September, the Department of Health (DoH) announced that five raw materials from China tested positive for Melamine. DoH Deputy Minister, Sung Yen-jen, vowed to confiscate and destroy all food materials containing any Melamine and claimed to have instructed local health authorities to track down all tainted products.
However, on 24 September, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office spokesperson, Li Weiyi, flatly denied this and asserted that there was no problem with Duqing products. The sample the Chinese government based this argument on came from products coming out between 15th October and 21st November 2007 but King Car’s samples were much more recent. Not only did Ma’s government fail to challenge China on this discrepancy. After Li’s press conference, on that evening at 9pm, Taiwan’s DoH made a U turn on its policy, raising the permissible concentration of Melamine from 0 parts per million (ppm) to 2.5 ppm. The Executive Yuan spokesperson, Vanessa Shih, claimed that the standard actually adhered to the ‘international’ standard, including Hong Kong and emphasised that Taiwan didn’t have the technology and resources to carry out more sophisticated tests at a large scale. DoH Minister, Lin Fang-yu was said to be responsible for this sudden shift in policy and stepped down as a result. Ma Ying-jeou and Premier Liu both claimed that they did not know about this policy change prior to the DoH announcement. The public was outraged by this decision because even pig feeds in China are not allowed to have more than 2ppm of Melamine.
Many doubt that Lin was the one responsible and believe that he was made a scapegoat to protect Ma and Liu. The fact that DoH made the U turn right after Li’s press conference indicates that it is highly likely that Ma ordered the change of policy to please the Chinese government. When journalists asked Lin’s wife, a well known plastic surgeon, why Lin did not consult someone higher up before making that decision, she blurted out ‘how did you know that he didn’t?’ Besides, this is a nation-wide crisis with public health, economic as well diplomatic ramifications. It is impossible for a minister to make the decision all on his own. If it was true, the functioning of the government would be highly questionable.
Lin’s successor, Yeh Chin-chuan, and Premier Liu clarified their position the next day, saying that the government will not set a limit. Rather, they would only distinguish between ‘detectable’ and ‘non-detectable’. However, when pressed, they did not confirm 0 ppm. This means that it’s all down to the sensitivity of the equipments and methods the government carries out tests with. The Agricultural Council explained that the government could only use HPLC methods to carry out tests and HPLC can only detect as far as 2ppm. Anything under this level cannot be detected by HPLC methods. A better option, LC-MS/MS methods, can detect up to 0.05ppm but the equipment would cost NT$20,000,000 (approx. US$623,000). They claimed that no matter how sensitive the equipment is, it is impossible to push it to the 0 level as there can always be traces however small they are. A former official from Agricultural Council also stood by Ma’s government and emphasised that there were only 10 machines for LC-MS/MS in Taiwan and each test would require 3-4 working days, suggesting that Taiwan really didn’t have the capacity to carry out sophisticated tests for Melamine. It looked like Ma’s government was really convincing the public to accept the 2.5ppm standard.
Unfortunately, the government was caught out by members of the scientific community. Prof. Chang from Chun Shan Medical University told the press that there are at least 250 LC-MS/MS systems in Taiwan and each costs only NT$6-7,000,000, a third of what the government official claimed and each test would only take 5-6 minutes to complete. Even though those systems are scattered across government agencies, university labs and industries (e.g. pharmaceutical and food), he believes that cross-departmental coordination within the government is quite feasible if the government is willing and able to get organised.
Furthermore, the amount of Melamine is only relevant when quantitative analysis is carried out (it establishes the amount of a certain element in a sample). It will be much easier to do qualitative analysis, which establishes the presence or absence of a given element regardless of the actual amount. Even though the acute toxicity of Melamine is not high, it has been found to cause cancer in rats. Some may argue that this was only an animal study. However, what has happened in China can be seen as an unintended large scale observational study, where we can get a glimpse of the effect of the substance. So far, it looks scary. Anyone in their right mind would say NO to it, especially in food they feed their children with. The government should impose clear and strict regulations on test procedures and labelling of country of origin, ingredients and measurement information on the products but they haven’t.
A more pressing concern is the combined toxicity of Melamine and other compound. Please see the WHO guidance on this matter. When combined with cyanuric acid, the two will form a crystal like substance, cyanuric acid, which is not very soluble and can therefore cause a lot of damage. This has been found to be the cause of deaths in pets which consumed contaminated pet food, reported in 2007. After so many instances (e.g. poisoned dumplings, toxic cough syrup, poisonous toothpaste, cancer causing agent in cooking sauce, contaminated pet food, toxic milk… from China), one cannot be 100% certain about what the Chinese have put in their food anymore. We just don’t know what substance is in there which may interact with what else… (if this makes sense).
Also, about the ‘international standard’ claim made by the government on 24th, Hong Kong seems to be the only place except New Zealand that has accepted an above 2ppm standard but in anything for babies, HK would only allow 1ppm. Besides, Hong Kong is part of China and therefore has to take whatever Beijing slams on their table but there is no reason why Taiwan should be pushed into accepting the Chinese standard, which guarantees future free access of Chinese toxic products to Taiwan.
Ma’s government seems to be sneakily making Taiwan ‘compatible’ to the Chinese standard. Most Taiwanese are furious about this; the vast majority (87.5% – 96%) of people are unhappy with the 2.5ppm standard and demand the prohibition of this substance like Japan for their own safety as well as their business reputations. They are worried about future food export business if Taiwan’s standard is the same as China, not any better. They are also worried that other countries, including China, will start dumping toxic food products Taiwan because the standard is not strict and inspections are lax.
In the midst of this crisis and all the confusion the government has caused, although DoH claimed to have called a stop on milk products imports from China while sorting out those already got into the market, Ministry of Finance and Custom claimed that they had not been formally informed by DoH and as a result, some their officials may still be processing applications for imports. DoH argued that their communications with other ministries and departments are now not restricted to paper form and all agencies should have received the message. In the shops, workers have been stocking shelves and removing products from shselves every time the goalpost change. So far, there has been no clear and consistent strategy in dealing with this crisis.
After the government was caught out on the measurement, on Saturday 27th, an unnamed expert who claimed to have attended a DoH consultation meeting told the press that EU has set 2.5ppm as its safe limit for Melamine and New Zealand set it at 5ppm. The expert said that DoH already got the information about NZ from the internet when Yeh Chin-chuan was appointed but ‘dare not’ reveal it to the public because of the present atmosphere.
It is true that the NZ sets its threshold is 5ppm (update on 26 September). The NZ authority’s response to the current crisis meant that ‘food containing 5ppm of melamine do not pose a risk to human health’ but for infant formula, it should be 1ppm. In the EU, the latest EFSA statement (25 September) said that EU ‘used the highest value of melamine (approximately 2,500 mg/kg) reported in Chinese infant formula and consumption at the 95th percentile as a basis for worst case scenarios’ and the Tolerable Daily Intake (TDI) is 0.5mg/kg body weight. They shouldn’t be directly translated into ‘allowing the addition of Melamine up to 2.5ppm in products’. I don’t know where they got this ‘EU set it at 2.5ppm’ calculation from. Perhaps someone with expertise in this area can help us here. It seems that Ma’s government deliberately misinterprets NZ and EU official statements and leaves the detection level (0ppm or 2.5ppm) and methods vague so that they can allow products with melamine in.
The most important message, I reckon, is in the first footnote of this EFSA statement: the addition of Melamine into food is prohibited. Also, all milk products from China are banned in the EU. If something is prohibited, it should not be intentionally added into food products at all. Even if it gets contaminated through the container to a detectable level, one should look into the safety of the container and processing rather than lowering the standard to let companies and governments that have bad ethics get away with it. Ma’s government’s failure to effectively deal with this crisis and make things clear and their eagerness to give in to pressure from China, even on food safety, really haven’t endeared the Taiwanese public.