Global melamine standard would protect consumers, lower trade barriers

By Rory Harrington

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food safety International trade Codex alimentarius

A global initiative to set an internationally-recognised standard for melamine in foods could harmonise efforts to detect future contamination and avoid unwanted trade barriers, said food safety officials.

The New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) is leading the group, made up of experts from around the world. The scheme was set up following the 2008 scandal in China when tons of melamine-tainted milk powder resulted in six deaths and the sickening of an estimated 300,000 people. Melamine was added to the powder to artificially bump up protein measurements when the product was tested.

John Reeve, the NZFSA’s principal toxicologist, will lead a delegation to Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods in Turkey next month to discuss the issue. The body is likely to consider a limit set not only to protect consumers but also to ensure governments can take action against the deliberate adulteration of products.

Avoiding trade barriers

The NZFSA said an internationally-accepted standard on melamine levels in food would also avoid unnecessary barriers to trade in products that contain trace levels of the chemical that are not from adulteration. It added that while many countries had set their own melamine levels at identical levels, others had not. This latter group “take action to prohibit imports of products if any presence of melamine is detected”.

“Small amounts of melamine inadvertently get into products either through migration from the equipment food is processed on or because it’s common in tiny amounts in the environment,”​ said Reeve. “Our testing methods are getting much more sophisticated, so we can detect melamine at miniscule levels that are harmless.”

He added that because such minute levels were not the result of deliberate adulteration, it was necessary to set an international limit.

“A zero limit for the compound would not be practical and could be used as a technical barrier to trade,”​ said Reeve. “Therefore the committee’s work is focussing on striking a balance between acknowledging the ‘natural’ occurrence of the compound while protecting the health of consumers and making it difficult for those willing to use unethical practices in food production.”

The Codex committee will seek to formalise a standard, thereby removing the variations that exist from country to country, Reeve added. The European tolerable daily intake (TDI) is 0.5mg/kg bodyweight, while the World Trade Organisation recommnended the level be 0.2mg/kg bodyweight. The Canadian Government set its level at 0.35mg/kg bodyweight

“There has been international backing within Codex for taking action and New Zealand has had a significant input into setting this internationally-accepted limit,​’ he said.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission (Codex) sets international standards and related documents for use by the 183 member nations to protect consumer health and international trade. These standards are recognised as international benchmarks for many developed and developing countries.

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