Protein adulteration in the People's Republic of China refers to the adulteration and contamination of several food and feed ingredients with inexpensive melamine and other compounds such as cyanuric acid, ammeline and ammelide. These adulterants can be used to inflate the apparent protein content of products, so that inexpensive ingredients can pass for more expensive, concentrated proteins. Melamine by itself has not been thought to be very toxic to animals or humans except possibly in very high concentrations, but the combination of melamine and cyanuric acid has been implicated in kidney failure. Reports that cyanuric acid may be an independently and potentially widely-used adulterant in China have heightened concerns for both animal and human health.
Chinese protein export contamination was first identified after the wide recall of many brands of cat and dog food starting in March 2007 (the 2007 pet food recalls). The recalls in North America, Europe and South Africa came in response to reports of kidney failure in pets. Several Chinese companies sold products claimed to be wheat gluten, rice protein or corn gluten, but which proved to be wheat flour adulterated with melamine, cyanuric acid, and other contaminants. The Chinese government was slow to respond, denying that vegetable protein was exported from China and refusing to allow foreign food safety investigators to enter the country. Ultimately, the Chinese government acknowledged that contamination had occurred and arrested the managers of two protein manufacturers identified so far and took other measures to improve food safety and product quality.
Reports of widespread adulteration of Chinese animal feed with melamine have raised the issue of melamine contamination in the human food supply both in China and abroad. On 27 April 2007, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) subjected all vegetable proteins imported from China, intended for human or animal consumption, to detention without physical examination, including: Wheat Gluten, Rice Gluten, Rice Protein, Rice Protein Concentrate, Corn Gluten, Corn Gluten Meal, Corn By-Products, Soy Protein, Soy Gluten, Proteins (includes amino acids and protein hydrolysates), and Mung Bean Protein. In a teleconference with reporters on 1 May, officials from the FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture said that between 2.5 and 3 million people in the United States had consumed chickens that had consumed feed containing contaminated vegetable protein from China. Reports that melamine has been added as a binder in animal feed manufactured in North America also raise the possibility that harmful melamine contamination might not be limited to China.
In September 2008, Sanlu Group had to recall baby formula because it was contaminated with melamine. Around 294,000 babies in China became ill after drinking the milk; at least six babies died.
As of July 2010, Chinese authorities were still reporting some seizures of melamine-contaminated dairy product in some provinces, though it was unclear whether these new contaminations constituted wholly new adulterations or were the result of illegal reuse of material from the 2008 adulterations.
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