Saturday, June 06, 2009

Mandarin Melamine Menace, MSM MIA

Melamine dinnerware is cool, or at least it was until Thursday.

I've always been drawn to all the pretty colors it comes in, with that shiny finish and a non-porous smoothness that beckons you to run your fingers over it. It's one of the few things that shines at garage sales. I still use a couple of Winnie-The-Pooh bowls that my son used when he was a baby. They still look like new.

It's a habit of mine to cruise the consumer discount stores when I'm on Cape Cod, and while looking around one on Tuesday I noticed a big pile of melamine plates and bowls stacked up and on sale.

Thanks to one of the more diligent investigative reporters around, there may be a reason for that, and one that seems to be escaping the fickle grasp of the American mainstream media.

Andrew Schneider, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter most recently with the
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, posted an entry to his blog on Thursday that reports some disturbing findings in the testing of melamine resin products produced in China. To quote his post:

"This week, health officials in Indonesia ran tests of 62 samples of melamine plates, bowls, spoons and forks. The head of the country’s Food and Drug Monitoring Agency said that “30 of them released formaldehyde when used for anything hot, watery or acidic,” the Jakarta Globe reported.

In Korea, food scientists tested eight different brands of Chinese-made melamine dinnerware in January and February and found that 88 percent of the plates and bowls released formaldehyde when heated in a microwave.

And last week in Hong Kong, officials with the Consumer Council told the Hong Kong Standard that it had checked 300 melamine products from 20 household goods and chain stores, and only 5 percent of samples were properly labeled to warn customers not to use them in microwaves."

This isn't the first time that melamine has made it into the news in some fashion. In 2007, thousands of dogs and cats were sickened by pet food made with wheat gluten imported from China that contained traces of melamine. In a related story also this week, an American food products supplier will plead guilty to charges they sold the tainted gluten to pet food manufacturers.

Last year, over 300,000 Chinese were sickened, and several infants killed, by milk tainted with melamine in an attempt to give it the appearance of a higher protein content, and thus bring a higher price. The World Health Organization termed the effects of this one of the most significant food safety events it had ever encountered.

In the wake of this latest revelation about plates, bowls, and utensils made with melamine resin, I can only find six articles as of today on a Google News search, all of them coming from Asian news agencies. It would appear thus far that outside of Mr. Schneider's reporting no American media outlet has seen fit to report these problems, even when it is likely that many of these products may be in the storerooms and on the shelves of American businesses, and being used by American families.

One wonders that even if the MSM is not following this, if the appropriate government oversight agency is watching. I certainly hope so.

I'm by no means an expert on the subject matter; Mr. Schneider, who I became acquainted with while he was at the Pittsburgh Press, has made food safety (and especially products from China) a big part of his investigative milieu. In a related set of stories for the P-I last year, he also reported on the importation of tainted honey from China into the U.S., and in some cases its packaging and marketing as being produced in this country. I feature Andy's blog regularly in the sidebar.

Educated consumers need to exercise due diligence when purchasing items that may have been produced in China. As this story shows, this diligence needs to extend to so-called durable goods as well as food items.

There appear to be considerable quality control issues across the entire Chinese manufacturing sector that may threaten the health and safety of all consumers. We need to make sure that our government is dealing with these issues effectively, without regard to political or financial considerations.

Thanks, Andy, for your diligence and expertise in continuing to bring these issues to the forefront of the blogosphere, if not the American corporate media. It will be interesting to see the time frame from this initial report to a more generalized consumer health advisory or mainstream reporting.

Have a good weekend. Go Pens.

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