Thursday, October 02, 2008

Nestle's response to the Sanlu melamine scandal

I've written about various aspects of the contamination of Sanlu formula in China with melamine and Enterobacter Sakazakii and how Sanlu/Fonterra and transanational corporations such as Nestlé and Nutricia have undermined breastfeeding through aggressive promotion.

This is an update of some of the information that has emerged since, including how Nestlé sees profit to be made from the scandal and an analysis of the stories of Nestlé formula also being contaminated and its denials.

The contaminant, melamine, is allegedly added to increase the protein level of milk, so farmers can meet quality specifications, perhaps because the milk has been watered down to increase volume. The sciencebase blog is written by someone who has worked in the dairy industry and questions how contaminated milk could have passed through the testing process. He also points out that the authorities suggested 0.25% melamine has been found in the milk, which would augment its protein reading (because it is an organic compound with high Nitrogen content - formula C3H6N6) - but only by 1.2%. This is an expensive strategy, unless the melamine itself is low quality and may be a contaminated contaminant, bringing other chemicals into the milk. See:

A briefing from the World Health Organisation (WHO) gives the same figure for the contamination of powdered formula and calculates: "the Sanlu product incriminated in the cases in China was contaminated at a level of over 2500 mg/kg powder, corresponding to approximately 350 ppm in reconstituted product (assuming a 7-fold reconstitution factor)."

WHO suggests, with lots of qualifications, what a tolerable level may be: "Considering a 5kg infant, the tolerable amount of melamine would be 2.5 mg per day. This amount would be reached when consuming 750 ml liquid (or reconstituted) formula contaminated at a level around 3.3 mg/l (ppm)."

In other words, the melamine level in the reconstituted formula is over 100 times this amount. Also implicated is one of the contaminants of the contaminant, cyanuric acid: "Melamine alone is of low toxicity, however experimental studies have shown that combination with cyanuric acid leads to crystal formation and subsequent kidney toxicity."

To download the WHO briefing as a pdf, click:

Now on 21 September Nestlé issued a press release saying its products were not affected after reports of melamine being found in Neslac Gold 1. It was Neslac that was found to have too high levels of iodine in 2005, which Nestlé also blamed on milk suppliers and refused to withdraw. As I've written previously, the China Daily reported: "Nestle was caught remarkably flat-footed for a multinational firm of its global standing. Many believe it reacted with the speed and alacrity of a sailor drunk on shore leave." See:

Nestlé said in its press release:

---Nestle press release extract
Following press reports in Hong Kong earlier today claiming that traces of melamine had been found in a Nestlé growing up milk, Nestlé is confident that none of its products in China is made from milk adulterated with melamine.

The Hong Kong Government's Food and Environmental Health Department has just released a report declaring that Neslac Gold 1+, which was mentioned in the media reports, is safe and that no melamine was detected in the product. Neslac Gold 1+ was previously tested by government-approved independent laboratories such as the Hong Kong Standards and Testing Centre Ltd. (18-20 September) and the Food Industry Research and Development in Taiwan (16 September). Neither test detected melamine in the product.
---extract ends

It's always worth checking source documents to see if Nestlé is presenting them accurately, because too often it takes things out of context and misrepresents official statements (its misleading use of statements from the UK Methodist Church to try to undermine the boycott is a good example).

There has been a media report of a child fed on Nestlé formla being admitted to hospital with kidney stones in Macau - see the Macau Daily Times 24 September. But checking the Hong Kong government's testing report, you will indeed find Neslac Gold 1+ on the uncontaminated list of products. Go to the Centre for Food Safety website by clicking here. Neslac Gold 1+ appears on the 'Milk products (other than infant formula)' list under the column: 'Satisfactory results of testing of Melamine'.

Nestlé goes on to give this assurance:

---Nestlé press release extract
Nestlé has a very close relationship with its milk producers in China and advises them continuously on the quality of milk production. Nestlé also has the same stringent quality control system in place in its factories in China as in any other part of the world. Over 70 different tests are routinely conducted in the course of producing infant formula and other milk products. In fact, the Chinese authorities have issued official certificates for all tested Nestlé products stating that no melamine has been detected in any of them.
---extract ends

But that's not true. Nestlé has just referred to the Hong Kong government's report. There is a Nestlé product on the unsatisfactory list of products contaminated with melamine: Nestle Dairy Farm UHT Pure Milk with 1.4 ppm. This is within the 3.3 ppm tolerable level suggested by WHO, but above the government's limit of 1 ppm. However, it isn't quite covered by Nestlé's claim that "no melamine has been detected" in any tested products.

Nestlé has now issued a press release, 2 October, about recalling formula in Taiwan. It has the tite: "Nestlé and Taiwan Department of Health reaffirm products are safe - Nestlé fails to understand temporary delisting request."

Nestlé has been requested to withdraw products that have been found to contain melamine.

Nestlé says: "In line with Nestlé’s Corporate Business Principles, the company immediately complied with authorities’ request."

Those business principles and Nestlé's actions do not always marry up (see the Nestlé Critics website). In this case perhaps Nestlé has been stung by the 'drunk sailor' accusation from when it refused the Chinese authories' instruction to withdraw products - and the fact we remind people of this and it's failure to recall formula in 2002 in Switzerland from a batch incriminated in the death of a 5-day-old child in Belgium due to contamination with Enterobacter Sakazakii.

I've not as yet found details of the testing in Taiwan. Nestlé's press release suggests that Taiwan has safety levels 50 times lower than other countries. I guess this is Nestlé's way of adjusting the claim that Nestlé products have no melamine, to suggesting they don't have very much.

Back to Nestlé's 22 September press release and the company states:

---Nestle press release extract
In general terms, melamine is found throughout the food chain across the world in minute traces which do not represent any health risk for consumers. There is a generally accepted tolerable daily intake of melamine in food in the EU (0.5mg/kg of body weight/day) and in the US (0.63mg/kg of body weight/day).
---extract ends

So rather than there being no melamine, the argument is we're all eating melamine anyway.

Formula is a particularly dangerous way for contaminants to reach infants. They are at the most vulnerable stage of development of their lives, outside the womb. Chemical contaminants also reach babies in utero through the accumulation of these 'tolerable' levels of contaminants in their mother's body through foods and the environment. Body loads of contaminants are often tested through breastmilk as many are fat soluble and it is easier to access milk than to take a biopsy. From a quick search of past reports, I've not found any indication of melamine being found in breastmilk. Other environmental contaminants are found at different levels, depending to a large extent on the use of chemicals in the home. These test results lead to scare headlines of contaminants in breastmilk, which miss the point that, as Nestlé suggests, contaminants are found throughout the food chain, and, more significantly, that breastfeeding a child helps it to excrete the far more dangerous in utero load of contaminants. IBFAN has a working group on residues in breastmilk, including objective information on risks and guidance on 'breastfeeding in an contaminated environment' - see:

Aside from the obvious need to investigate the catastrophic failure of the quality control systems of Fonterra/Sanlu, what else can be learned?

We need effective and trustworthy monitoring systems. This is something that Baby Milk Action and our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) have been calling for for years. When there are cases of contamination like this, and the many others that have led to recalls of infant formula, parents who use formula need to know that affected products will be pulled from the shelves and have access to information they can trust on which products are safe. We can't trust companies, as Nestlé's 'no melamine found' overstatement demonstrates.

There need to be robustly independent food standards agencies that parents can look to and believe in.

Not for nothing has Baby Milk Action action questioned the wisdom of the appointment of the new director of the UK Food Standards Agency - he comes from the dairy industry, which, at the very least, does not give the appearance of indepndence.

Nestlé has claimed it has support from the Department of Health in Taiwan. In the UK, Nestlé sponsors the Parliamentary secretary of a Department of Health minister and took her on an all-expenses-paid jolly to South Africa earlier in the year. Not surprisingly links like these give rise to questions of how independent even official bodies are. See:

Surely it would actually benefit companies to have credible independent bodies. Their efforts to gain influence lead to distrust.

We have been reminded that we live in a contaminated environment - 'melamine is found throughout the food chain' to quote Nestlé. Which is the result of living in a throw-away, mass-produced, processed world. How to clean it up is a bigger question than I'm going to look at on this blog.

And, of course, breastfeeding avoids these problems. You cannot get a more locally produced food. One that delivers both nourishment and protection, reduces a baby's contaminant load and doesn't pollute the environment.

Breastfeeding has been declining in China, not helped by the aggressive marketing of Nestlé and others.

Even with this tragedy in China, Nestlé's response is to look to its profits. It does not see this as a wake-up call for mothers and the wider society to think about arranging life to make it easier to breastfeed children, it sees a marketing opportunity.

Here's how company Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé responded to questons on the illness and death in China, according to Reuters reporting on his visit to India. See:

---extract begins

"All our products are 100 percent safe... Sales in China are rather being favoured," Peter Brabeck-Letmathe told reporters in India's capital, when asked whether the scandal would affect the company's business.

"It's rather positive than negative," Brabeck said.

---extract ends

1 comment:

小安 said...

DOH Taiwan says melamine found in Nestle milk products on Oct. 03, 2008