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FDA okays small amounts of melamine in U.S. foods

The industrial chemical melamine has sickened tens of thousands of Chinese infants and killed at least four according to the World Health Organization, but American officials now say adults can safely consume small amounts of the chemical.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration set a threshold for safe consumption of melamine but said that for infants, there wasn't enough evidence to create a similar limit.

Officials have found Chinese-made foods containing the industrial chemical melamine, used in plastics and other materials, in various specialty stores throughout the United States. Though none of the infamous infant formula has been found in the States, the FDA has advised consumers to avoid at least 13 other types of products from at least five manufacturers.

Setting a threshold of allowable melamine contamination sets a unfortunate precedent and doesn't improve consumer safety, said David Plunkett of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. There should be zero-tolerance for melamine, Plunkett said.

"This is an intentional adulterant. We just don't think that should be allowed into market," he said. "Don't set a tolerance level where you can adulterate food up to this point that you can market and sell in the United States."

The FDA said there was not enough evidence available to determine whether infants could safely consume trace amounts of melamine, noting that babies with underdeveloped kidneys might take longer to process the substance than slightly older infants.

"There is too much uncertainty to set a level in infant formula and rule out any public health concern," the agency said in a press release, adding, "This does not mean that any exposure to any detectable level of melamine and melamine–related compounds in formula will result in harm to infants."

The agency determined that adults could safely eat foods containing less than 2.5 parts per million of melamine, far lower than the 500 parts per million of melamine found in some products sold in the United States.

The FDA's report noted that consumers have used melamine-containing products such as dishes and plastics for food uses for decades. The agency estimated that consumers only pick up 0.015 parts per million of melamine from these uses.

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