The Checkout

The Mathematics of Melamine

Annys Shin

At the recent Food and Drug Administration's Science Board meeting, FDA officials briefed the board about its efforts to track economic adulteration of food.

It was a timely talk given that Chinese officials are reportedly in the middle of a crack down on melamine-tainted animal feed after the industrial chemical turned up in eggs. Melamine is used to make fertilizer and plastic but the factories where it is made regularly sell melamine scraps to whoever wants them. The scraps, in turn, are frequently used to make protein powders that are used to spike animal feed and watered down milk in order to pass protein tests.

So far melamine-contaminated infant formula has sickened more than 50,000 infants and toddlers and killed at least three. Melamine has also been found in cookies and candies exported to the U.S. that have subsequently been recalled.

Spiking animal feed and milk with melamine is an open secret in China, according to news reports about the infant formula crisis. Similar stories ran last year during the pet food scandal.

At the FDA meeting, some figures culled from various publications were posted as part of the melamine presentation. They were a good reminder of what consumers and safety regulators are up against.

The following excerpt is from an article that ran in Chemistry World, a publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry based in the UK.

Industrial melamine costs about 12,000 yuan (US$1,765) per ton, much higher than the price of milk - 1,200-1,800 yuan per ton. But the practice of adding melamine to milk is profitable because just one gram of melamine per kg of milk is enough to lift the apparent protein content of milk from less than 27 grams of protein per kilogram (the cheapest grade of milk in China) to greater than 31 grams per kilogram - the most expensive grade.
So for 0.012 yuan (0.0018 US cents), producers can illegally boost the price of a liter of milk from 1.2 yuan (17.6 US cents) to 1.8 yuan (26.5 US cents) per kilogram. If the milk is diluted, the resulting profits can be even greater.

That sort of return is hard to beat. And while Chinese officials have tried to minimize how widespread melamine use is, those numbers show why it's been hard to squash economic adulteration.

By Annys Shin |  November 10, 2008; 7:01 AM ET Annys Shin
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