Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, April 30, 2007


In case you missed it -- and I must say it's gotten remarkably little attention -- David Barboza and Alexei Barrionuevo report in the NYT that Chinese manufacturers routinely add melamine to protein products for export to the U.S. In case this is at all confusing to people, the reason is essentially to commit a fraud. Buyers assess the quality and price of these products by measuring their nitrogen content, which they assume corresponds to their protein content. Nitrogen is an important constituent of protein, but not of the other major constituents of living things -- carbohydrates and lipids. Melamine contains a lot of nitrogen, so it fools the tests.

Now, the people who do this are dishonest but they aren't murderers at heart -- they appear to honestly believe that melamine per se isn't harmful, although the adulterated product is of low nutritional value. What we still don't know is whether substantial amounts of this stuff have been used to make products intended for human consumption. So far, we're only aware of melamine entering the human food supply through feeding of "salvaged" melamine-contaminated pet food to livestock. But there is certainly no reason to think that Chinese manufacturers have limited this practice to the pet food market.

Is it harmful to humans to chronically consume small amounts of melamine? Well, we can't actually answer that question. But the real issue is that the U.S. does very little to inspect imported foodstuffs at all. This may be only a very small part of a much bigger story. When you go to the grocery store, you buy what purports to be food, but you don't really know.

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