Which Came First?
The melamine or the egg? There’s been a development in the seemingly endless saga of food contaminated by melamine in China that I found interesting:
HONG KONG, China (CNN) — Health authorities in Hong Kong have found more eggs contaminated with the chemical melamine.
The chemical is at the center of a tainted milk scandal that has sickened more than 50,000 children across China. It’s showing up in fresh eggs, according to Hong Kong’s Center for Food Safety.
Contaminated eggs were found in a batch produced by Jingshan Pengchang Agriculture Product Company, located in Hubei province, about 430 miles (695 km) east of Shanghai, the center said in a statement Tuesday
Although much lower in melamine content than contaminated eggs produced by Hanwei Eggs that were discovered last week in Hong Kong, the Jingshan eggs were still above the legal limit. Tainted eggs from Hanwei had nearly double the maximum permissible level.
Health officials in Zhejiang City also found melamine in Ciyunxiang-brand eggs produced by Changzhi City Green Biological Development Center, from Shanxi Province.
How did the melamine get into the eggs? It seems to me that there are several possibilities:
- The eggs were deliberately adulterated with melamine as has been claimed about both contaminated milk recently and contaminated wheat gluten last year.
- The grain that the chickens who laid the eggs were fed was deliberately adulterated with melamine to suggest it had more protein than it actually did.
- The grain that the chickens who laid the eggs were fed was accidentally adulterated with melamine
It’s hard to see why anyone would do (1). That the problem is as widespread as it appears to suggest that it’s not just a few bad eggs (so to speak) as has been claimed in (2) or that it’s accidental as would be the case in (3).
That brings us to (4), which I’ve been suggesting may be the case for nearly two years since the pet food contamination scandal in early 2007. It’s possible that the grain plants themselves have been contaminated with melamine in the course of their normal growing process.
It’s not in dispute that melamine is in common use in China as a fertilizer. It’s cheap and has lots of nitrogen. Nor is it in dispute that Chinese soil is becoming increasingly depleted. The more depleted the soil, the more fertilizer is used.
My correspondence with plant biologists last year suggested that it was at least possible that if melamine were used as a fertilizer in really large quantities uptake of the melamine into the plants themselves was possible. This theory has the virtue of parsimony: it explains all of the contaminations on observed facts all known to be true rather than on speculation.
Which brings us to this snippet from the article cited above:
Health officials in Hong Kong say that there’s little risk to human health — and that a child would have to eat perhaps 20 eggs a day for the melamine to have an effect.
But what if everything you ate, vegetables, grains, meat, milk, eggs, animal products, were contaminated with melamine to one degree or another? That would be very bad news, indeed, for the Chinese or anyone importing food from China. Have I mentioned that China is one of the world’s largest food exporters second, I believe, only to the United States in that regard?
China needs to ban the use of melamine as a fertilizer, if only to regain the confidence of its food customers. That will raise the cost of food in China and place stress on the country’s policy of food self-sufficiency. That would be good for China and good for its trading partners.
Given the size of the country AND the size of the problem, I would lean towards “All of the above”.