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FDA says it's making America's food safer--but melamine is OK in infant formula

In the wake of melamine and high-profile food poisoning cases, the embattled Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says that it's taking steps to ensure food safety.

In a report released today, the FDA says that it's beefing up its inspection staff by at least 130 people, that it's developing a tomato-safety plan to reduce the risk of infection-causing salmonella bacteria, and that it is drafting enforcement rules to prevent listeria bacteria (which causes fever, muscle aches and digestive symptoms) in prepared food. It also approved irradiation technology to kill E. coli and salmonella, and announced that it's opening satellite offices in Europe, India, Latin America and the Middle East The FDA opened an international station in Beijing last month after Chinese baby formula and pet food sold in the U.S. was found to contain the industrial contaminant melamine, which was used to artificially boost the alleged protein content in the products.
 
But critics aren’t convinced the actions will be enough to safeguard the U.S. food supply. The FDA was in the hot seat last week after the Associated Press reported that the agency had detected traces of melamine and one of its byproducts in U.S.-sold infant formula, but hadn’t made the findings public. (Thousands of babies in China were sickened and three died after they drank milk products contaminated with melamine, and contaminated pet food killed thousands of U.S. dogs and cats.) The FDA also came under fire for taking three months to trace the origin of a salmonella outbreak that began in April to Mexican-grown Serrano peppers. Initially, the FDA had warned that tomatoes might be the culprit, prompting a $100 million loss in sales.

“I’ve tried to be open about when they [FDA officials] come in and say they are doing this and doing that,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT), told the New York Times. “But at every step, they fail on just such a large scale.”

The FDA said late last week that it would allow traces of melamine and one of its byproducts, cyanuric acid, in infant formula. Melamine is a chemical used in the manufacturing of plastics that can cause stones in the bladder and kidneys, and in serious cases, may lead to kidney failure.

“Levels of melamine alone or cyanuric acid alone, at or below 1 part per million in infant formula do not raise public health concerns,” the FDA said. Regulators had said in October that they couldn’t “establish a level of melamine and its analogues in these products that does not raise public health concerns."

The FDA only released the results of melamine tests on infant formula to the AP after the news organization filed a Freedom of Information Act request. The agency initially transposed the names of two products, indicating that the chemical was in Mead Johnson's Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron, and that Nestle’s Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron contained cyanuric acid. In fact, it was the other way around, according to the AP. (The test results can be viewed here.)

"This is an isolated issue that affects only one formula product we sell," said Nestlé Nutrition CEO Kurt Schmidt. "While these are very low levels of melamine, we will do whatever is necessary to correct the situation, including finding alternative packaging for this particular product."

Mead Johnson said in a statement that it hasn't been able to duplicate the FDA's results but is "continuing to investigate."

The findings "demonstrate the agency's failure to exercise adequate precaution," Consumers Union said in a statement this afternoon, adding that the FDA should recall tainted batches of any infant formula.

(Updated at 4:55 p.m. Dec. 1 with comment from Consumers Union.)

Image by iStockphoto/Hande Yüce

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