SHANGHAI - China's scandal over melamine-contaminated food products is far from
over. In the latest development, the poisonous chemical has been found not only
in an array of dairy products - from infant milk formula to chocolate European
sex toys - but as a widely used additive in poultry, fish and cattle feed.
It's not just a few bad eggs. The trail of greed and negligence that allowed
melamine - a toxic industrial chemical - to slip from modified animal fodder
into the human food chain has now led to some of China's top scientists - many
of whom are widely regarded to have put personal profit over the public safety
Recent reports have found that China's top scientific research
body - the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) - "discovered" as early as 1999
that adding melamine to food could boost its protein levels. In turn, the
reports allege that rogue biologists cashed in on their chemical invention by
promoting the sale of products containing melamine - even charging for training
in how to use them - for years.
As a result, China's high-profile nationwide campaign to boost science and
scientific research is being reconsidered with an eye to social responsibility,
and the possible "economic adulteration" of all Chinese products.
The scandal broke in September after melamine-polluted milk killed four babies
and sickened as many as 60,000.
It spread from the milk industry to the animal feed industry in late October
when Hong Kong authorities found melamine in eggs imported from the mainland -
the result of tainted feed given to chickens. There have been subsequent
reports of melamine found in feed for pigs, cows and fish, prompting fears that
meat and meat products could be contaminated.
China's state news agency Xinhua reported on Wednesday that 1,272 infants are
still hospitalized in China with at least two of the babies in serious
condition. Ingesting melamine can cause kidney stones and lead to kidney
failure in young children.
But scientists say warnings signs were apparent as early as last year when
melamine in Chinese-made pet food killed house pets across the United States.
"You can't separate the food supplies of animals, pets and people," Marion
Nestle, a public health professor at New York University and author of the
recent book Pet Food Politics: The Chihuahua in the Coal Mine, told the
Washington Post. "That's an enormous warning sign that if something wasn't done
immediately to clean up the food safety problem, this would leak into the human
China has used the Kjeldahl Nitrogen Determination Method to measure protein
level in food, meaning the content of protein is determined by the level of
nitrogen. It is an open secret in China that melamine is added to milk and
animal feed to artificially boost nitrogen levels. It was not until recently,
after the exposure of the tainted-milk scandal, that China make it compulsory
to test the content of melamine in foodstuffs.
While unscrupulous milk and fodder producers - and subsequently the government
- came under public accusations for making and covering up
melamine-contaminated products, angry Chinese consumers are now pointing
fingers at scientists.
The prestigious, government-funded CAS was among the first to be linked to the
Last month, Chinese bloggers exposed that as early as in 1999, a CAS
institution placed advertisements for an additive to cattle feed called "DH
Composite High-protein Fodder Supplement". The advertisement claimed that the
technology could be used to manufacture "high protein fodder using organic
nitrogen and special catalysts".
The technology was sold by the Appliance Technology Institute of CAS for 10,000
yuan (US$1,466) plus an extra 5,000 yuan ($700) for training, according to the
advertisement. The online ad was soon posted on major websites and forums. Many
believed that "DH Composite High-protein Fodder Supplement" was based on
The CAS, however, was quick to deny the charge. Jiang Xiezhu, spokesman of the
CAS, told the media that an investigation launched by the academy showed that
the supplement "had nothing to do with melamine". His explanation was that the
advertised technology could not produce the high temperature needed for the
production of melamine.
Few are convinced by the explanation, however, because the investigation was
done unilaterally by the CAS. Without an independent observer, people began to
doubt the objectivity of the results. And while denying that "DH Composite
High-protein Fodder Supplement" is based on melamine, the spokesman also failed
to publicize its formula or ingredients.
The CAS also failed to mention who invented the technology. It only said that
the contact person named in the advertisement, Gao Yinxiang, was not a
scientist, implying that Gao was not the inventor.
This is not true. In an interview with the Beijing Evening News, Gao
acknowledged taking part in the development of the product. The Beijing Evening
News later exposed Gao as a former director of the Appliance Technology
Institute of CAS, and a biologist.
It's not clear whether the CAS deliberately hid Gao's identity. However, the
process of investigation and the contradictory statements made the CAS's
explanation quite weak. Even commentaries in major newspapers demanded the CAS
give a more thorough clarification.
In China, various kinds of "Protein Essence", or additives to boost the protein
levels of products, have been readily available for purchase.
Chen Junshi, a research fellow of China's Disease Prevention and Control
Center, said that the main ingredient of these "Protein Essence" additives is
melamine. The Chinese government began to ban "Protein Essence" after
melamine-tainted pet feed killed pets in the US last year. Gao insisted that
his supplement was not a "Protein Essence", although he remained vague about
what exactly his supplement was.
More scientists under fire
It might never be known whether the CAS invented the melamine supplement.
Still, the online ad did reveal a fact: China's top government-funded science
institution researched chemical fodder supplements nine years ago for profit.
Making chemical additives can be highly profitable. Industry insiders say that
the price of melamine was only 600-800 yuan per tonne, but its price could jump
500% to 4,000 yuan a tonne when it was made into protein supplements.
As the Washington Post reported, "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."
A November 10 blog hosted by the Washington Post and titled "The Mathematics of
Melamine" published an excerpt from an article that ran in Chemistry World, a
publication of the Royal Society of Chemistry based in the United Kingdom:
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.
Driven by such profits,
biologists have been eagerly developing cheap fodder supplements made from
chemicals, which, according to industry insiders, are used on far more than
cows and chickens.
According to Zheng Shixuan, board chairman of Guangdong Yuehai Fodder Group,
"Protein Essence" has been used in the feed industry for at least five years -
at the cost of public safety. International health authorities have warned that
melamine could lead to fatal kidney failure as early as 1994.
Gao was not the only scientist suspected of making melamine fodder additives.
According to the Southern Metropolis Daily, another research institute under
the CAS, the CAS's Senior Experts' Technology Center in Shanxi province,
developed a protein supplement called "DH Protein Essence" in October 2007. A
description of the supplement said that adding it could boost a product's
protein content 160-200%. The CAS is yet to give an explanation on the product.
Another well-known biologist Wang Houde was also suspected of inventing a
"melamine supplement", after Chinese bloggers found Wang's name in an ad
selling a "Protein Essence". The ad claimed that this "Protein Essence" was a
patented product of Wang and described it as a cheap alternative to
Wang denied the accusation. He said the technology was developed by Nanjing
University in 1989 and the Ministry of Agriculture never banned it from the
fodder supplement industry.
Next on the menu
The rampant use of chemical additives in animal feed can be traced to 1999.
According to Gao Yinxiang, the research and development of high-protein feed
additives was a hot field among scientists about 10 years ago due to shortage
of animal fodder in the country at the time.
From that time, it's hard to define the exact role that scientists played in
the evolution of the melamine scandal. Yet scientists certainly contributed to
it by developing unsafe protein alternatives. Many Chinese are now calling on
scientists to examine their conscience before making profits at the expense of
The CAS may not have invented melamine additives. However, it still owes the
public an explanation as to why it developed - and continues to develop - feed
supplements that food experts say are dangerous for human health.
The melamine saga and the reactions from relevant parties, including
scientists, the government and the related companies, shows a system that
continues to shirk responsibility rather than taking efforts to avoid similar
incidents happening again.
Without effective supervision and sound accountability, China's food scares are
far from over.
Stephen Wong is a freelance journalist based in Shanghai.