Sunday, September 21, 2008

The China Syndrome: Is Nestlé Being Straight With Consumers?

Hong Kong's Centre for Food Safety has reported finding melamine in a sample of Nestlé Dairy Farm Pure Milk. The one-liter package, sold for use in catering, was found to contain 1.4 ppm melamine (1.4 mg of melamine per Kg). The melamine-contaminated milk was produced by Nestlé Qingdao Limited, in Qingdao, China.

Nestlé's corporate offices released a statement in response to the reports. The company expressed confidence "... that none of its products in China is made from milk adulterated with melamine." The press release goes on to say that the lowest concentration of melamine that can be detected by common lab tests is 2 ppm, and that, based on a 2 ppm level, "... a three-year old child would have to consume over 40 litres of milk every day to exceed ... safety limits." 

The safety limits referred to in the Nestlé statement are so-called "tolerable daily intake" levels of 0.5 mg of melamine per Kg body weight/day in the EU, and 0.63 mg/Kg in the US. Does the arithmetic make sense?

  • 2 ppm represents 2 mg of melamine per liter or kilogram of milk
  • 40 liters of milk x 2 mg represents a total of 80 mg of melamine
  • at a "tolerable daily intake" of 0.63 mg/Kg, a person would need to weigh 80 ÷ 0.63, or 127 Kg to tolerate 80 mg of melamine per day

Swiss 3-year old children might weigh 127 Kg (unlikely though it seems), but it's highly doubtful that Chinese children way one-tenth as much. In fact, even if one assumes that a 3-year old child weighs 15 Kg, the "tolerable daily intake" would be 15 x 0.63, or 9.45 mg of melamine. At 2 ppm, this still represents more than 4.7 liters of milk, but it's a far cry from the 40 liters claimed in the Nestlé statement. Younger children weigh less, of course, and would have a lower tolerance.

In any event, Nestlé's argument is specious. There is no excuse for melamine in milk. Instead of trying to minimize the problem, Nestlé should get busy checking on its Chinese operations. It will do this multinational company no good to be associated with China's adulterated milk scandal.

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