Tests conducted at a US Food & Drug Administration laboratory on behalf of the Arkansas Department of Health & Human Services have detected melamine in at least one sample of imported Chinese catfish. And while officials are downplaying the health hazard, this latest finding suggests that the human food supply is much more widely contaminated than previously acknowledged.
Not that this should come as a surprise. Back on April 1, when I first started covering this story at length, I wrote:
Unless and until the FDA determines otherwise, one cannot help but wonder if our sick and dying cats are merely the canary in the coal mine alerting us to a broader contamination of the human food supply.
Three weeks later, when we learned that melamine had tainted chickens, I congratulated myself on my prescience and specifically warned that “a huge swath of our food supply has been compromised … including farmed fish.” Then on May 8, after more details of our expanding food safety crisis had emerged, I elaborated:
According to recent studies, 81-percent of America’s seafood is imported, and about 40-percent of that is farmed. China is the world’s aquaculture leader, accounting for about 70-percent of global production. It is also a major U.S. supplier of farm-raised shrimp, catfish, tilapia, carp, clams, eel and other aquaculture products.
We now know that it is common practice in China to spike the nitrogen level of livestock feed by adulterating the product with both scrap melamine and scrap cyanuric acid. And it has also been widely reported that this contaminated feed is routinely used in China’s burgeoning aquaculture industry.
[…] Fish physiology can leave them particularly prone to bio-accumulating certain contaminants, and the nature of common aquaculture practices tends to exacerbate the problem. Farmed seafood raised on a steady diet of contaminated feed would surely retain some of the toxins in its flesh. But as far as we know, no imported Chinese aquaculture products have yet been tested.
Well, now imported Chinese seafood has been tested, and the results are disturbing. FDA tested Chinese catfish from four Arkansas wholesale distributors, and found detectable levels in at least one sample. Having recently passed Vietnam to become the largest exporter of farmed catfish to the US, China is on target to deliver over 20,000 tons in 2007. If contamination was rare, a positive test would be like finding a needle in a haystack, but considering what we now know about the widespread use of melamine-adulterated fish feed in China, a one-in-four chance strikes me as just about right.
USDA and FDA officials continue to insist that melamine-tainted poultry, pork and seafood is safe to eat and that contamination levels pose no risk to human health. But they simply do not know (or will not tell us) how widespread the contamination is, whether melamine accumulates over time in human kidneys or other organs, what other toxins may have been contained in the melamine scrap, and exactly how melamine interacts with cyanuric acid and other contaminants within the human body.
What we do know is that thousands of dogs and cats dropped dead after eating melamine-tainted pet food — some within only a meal or two of consuming the poisoned product. And the FDA’s own Protein Surveillance Assignment warns that chronic exposure to melamine “may cause cancer or reproductive damage,” and specifically instructs that “pregnant women should not perform this assignment.”
The media may have lost interest in the food safety crisis, but the story continues to unfold, much of it predictably. If farm-raised Chinese seafood is contaminated, it seems likely that so is Chinese poultry, pork and beef. And if multiple Chinese manufacturers were selling melamine-spiked gluten and protein concentrate to US importers as “human food grade,” then surely Chinese food manufacturers have been similarly duped as well. Given the facts (and human nature) there is every reason to believe that Chinese manufactured processed foods are sitting on the shelf today with detectable levels of melamine — and no doubt, have been for years.
And that’s just the melamine. From toxic levels of diethylene glycol in children’s toothpaste, to antibiotics in fish, to “filthy,” “unsafe” and “falsely” labeled products, China’s burgeoning yet largely unregulated food industry is reaching out to threaten consumers worldwide.
It was not a lucky guess that led me to suspect Chinese aquaculture products, but an informed one. Don’t be surprised when this story gets much worse.