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29-03-2010 - World keeping an eye on melamine

World keeping an eye on melamine

22 March 2010

A New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) toxicologist is working with a group of experts from around the world to set an internationally-accepted limit for melamine in foods that will harmonise global efforts to detect any deliberate adulteration in the future.

This follows the 2008 event in China when infant formula laced with melamine killed at least six children and made many thousands sick.

NZFSA principal toxicologist John Reeve will attend the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods in Turkey next month, where he expects the committee will consider a limit that will not only protect the health of consumers all over the world, but also ensure that governments can take action against the deliberate and unnecessary adulteration of products.

It will also avoid unnecessary barriers to trade in products that contain trace levels of melamine that are not from adulteration.

A New Zealand action level for the presence of melamine was put in place in September 2008.

Many other countries have set their own limits at the same levels, but others who have no set limits take action to prohibit imports of products if any presence of melamine is detected. Melamine mimics protein, artificially bumping up protein measurements when a product is tested.

“Essentially the committee’s job will be to formalise a standard, removing the variations that exist from country to country,” John says.

“There has been international backing within Codex for taking action and New Zealand has had a significant input into setting this internationally-accepted limit.”

Small amounts of melamine inadvertently get into products either through migration from the equipment food is processed on or because it’s common in tiny amounts in the environment.

“Our testing methods are getting much more sophisticated, so we can detect melamine at miniscule levels that are harmless. Because these miniscule levels are not the result of deliberate adulteration, it is appropriate that an internationally agreed limit is set,” John says.

“A zero limit for the compound would not be practical and could be used as a technical barrier to trade. Therefore the committee’s work is focussing on striking a balance between acknowledging the ‘natural’ occurrence of the compound while protecting the health of consumers and making it difficult for those willing to use unethical practices in food production.”

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) sets international standards and related documents for use by the 183 member nations to protect consumer health and international trade. These standards are recognised as international benchmarks for many developed and developing countries.

Internationally-accepted standards are vital for countries exporting and importing food. About 80% of the food New Zealand produces is exported, bringing in more than half of our overseas earnings – more than $20 billion a year.


For further comment contact: John Reeve, Principal Advisor (Toxicology), 04 894 2533 or 029 894 2533

For further information contact: Miriam Meister, Advisor (Media Communications), 04 894 2466 or 029 894 2466.

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