September 26, 2008

Cornellians Examine the Chinese Milk Crisis

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In recent weeks over 53,000 children have become ill, 13,000 were hospitalized and four infants died due to kidney failure associated with consumption of tampered milk products in China. The nitrogen-rich chemical melamine was added to watered-down milk in order to mask the protein deficiencies created when cutting milk with water. The issue has rapidly expanded beyond China’s borders, with the European Union ordering rigorous testing of imports containing the contaminated milk products, such as cookies, toffees and chocolates. The U.S. is also enacting recall measures on products imported from China that may contain contaminated milk, including baby formula.

What is Being Done:
In the U.S. and abroad, food safety officials are concerned with imports containing the tampered milk that may have made it past inspections.
“The FDA is actually currently looking in ethnic markets for these banned items that have found their way in. They’re very good and have pulled a lot of dangerous products,” Prof. Robert Gravani, food science, said.
The primary objective is now to protect citizens from the harmful milk, which can cause kidney stones in adults and kidney failure in infants.
“We need to tell people what we know, what the risks are, and what they can do to protect themselves and their families from those risks,” Gravani said. “We don’t want people consuming infant formula from China until this situation blows over.”

What Cornell is Doing:
The Food Science department at Cornell is hoping to prevent future contamination issues by focusing on informing importers about potential dangers and what they can do to ensure the safety of their products.
“We’re trying to make a difference by providing information. We have to provide a little pressure to avoid these food adulteration issues,” Gravani said. “We have held programs in New York City on the rules and regulations of food safety, and what companies need to do to get the products they want approved in the U.S. We have received a grant from the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets to develop a generic food safety pamphlets to educate importers about the dangers.”
Cornell students planning on visiting or studying abroad in China may need to take precautions to avoid illness.
“Before going there last summer I had been warned; but I really witnessed it first hand when I was there. I was much more cautious about everything — any kind of food I ate or anything I had to drink, because I had been told there was a problem with bootlegging foods. I had to look for brands that I recognized,” said Anna Kress ’10, an Asian studies major.

“I think it all started as an economic adulteration issue, but it’s unclear if it’s the farmers or the dealers that initiated it,” said Gravani. “Apparently they decided that they had x amount of milk, and they could dilute it with water to make a larger profit. It’s an issue of greed. It’s morally, ethically and legally wrong. What they did was wrong. Period.”
The contamination is not a new development; there have been complaints for the last 10 months, but the Chinese government is only now issuing a recall of the tainted milk.
“They were receiving complaints as early as December 2007, and it was mentioned in August and they started to pull milk, but it was never an official recall. Why it took so long from the time of the first complaints to this point, is clearly a gross negligence,” Gravani said.