Most of you probably already know more about melamine than you ever expected. Melamine refers to both a chemical and to a resin produced from it. Human ingestion of melamine “may lead to reproductive damage, or bladder or kidney stones, which can lead to bladder cancer.” Unfortunately, its high nitrogen content allows it to mimic protein and that characteristic has led to Chinese companies putting it into feedstock as an extremely cheap way of falsely boosting its protein content readings.
Here we go again, and this time it is hitting very close to home.
The Los Angeles Times just came out with a story, entitled, “Toxic melamine is suspected in seafood from China,” on how melamine is being used in China to boost the protein content readings in feedstock being given to seafood. I say close to home on this for two reasons. One, probably around ten percent of my firm’s clients are in the seafood industry or a related industry. One of my first big cases in China was seizing/arresting seafood in Dalian/Qingdao. Co-blogger Steve Dickinson lives in Qingdao these days and, in large part, that has to do with all of the Seattle seafood connections to that area.
Two, Seafood is a shockingly international business. A few years ago, my law firm was retained by the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) to represent (amicus curiae) foreign fish importers before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court (certiorari was denied). I remember from that brief that more than 80% of the seafood in the United States is imported and I would bet that percent is even higher now. “By volume, China is the largest exporter of seafood to the U.S., and the second largest in terms of monetary value. In particular, China exports significant amounts of shrimp and catfish products, which represent two of the ten most consumed seafood products in the U.S.” (April 25, 2008, Statement of the FDA’s Don Kraemer, before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Hearing on Chinese Seafood: Safety and Trade Issues).
The Los Angeles Times article starts out with the massive (and ever growing) numbers involved:

China is the world’s largest producer of farm-raised seafood, exporting billions of dollars worth of shrimp, catfish, tilapia, salmon and other fish. The U.S. imported about $2 billion of seafood products from China in 2007, almost double the volume of four years earlier, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

It then hits us with a critical string of bad news. Melamine is widely believed to go into feedstock for seafood in China, Melamine “can lead to urinary problems such as kidney stones and even renal failure,” and, “unlike in cows and pigs, the edible flesh in fish that have been fed melamine contains residues of the nitrogen-rich substance.”
The article then quotes a Burbank, California fish purchasing manager:

Brian Dedmon, purchasing manager for “China’s a big place, and it does a lot of processing, and cheaply too,” said Brian Dedmon, purchasing manager for the Fish King distribution plant in Burbank.
Fish King, which supplies hundreds of Southern California restaurants and has a store in Glendale, says it buys processed snow crab meat, squid and other seafood from China to meet market demand and because the price is competitive. Dedmon says the company relies on government inspections, its importers and its own experience to ensure the fish it buys is safe.
“We’re definitely concerned about melamine, but by the time the fish gets to us, health issues should’ve been taken care of by the government agencies and brokers that we go through,” he said.

I find this quote very interesting for many reasons. First off, about a year ago, when I was interviewed by various publications regarding Chinese food safety, I was asked if any of my food (many of them fish) importing clients would speak with the interviewer. Not a single one would. I particularly wanted one client to speak with the media to talk about how it was so conscious of food quality it had cameras recording every single food item that went into its boxes in China. Even this company would not talk, believing that no matter how much it touted its safety record and safety procedures, the only thing people would take away from the article was that it imported food from China.
I suspect Dedmon talked here because (at least as far as I know) snow crab meat and squid are not farm raised in China, rather, they are merely processed there. As such, those seafood items would almost certainly not pick up any melamine in China.
China Law Blog’s own Steve Dickinson brings a bit of his own gloom and doom to the article:

In the U.S., commercial fish farms have to use feed from a handful of approved suppliers, but in China, there may be hundreds of thousands of sources for feed, said Steve Dickinson, an American attorney in China’s coastal city of Qingdao who ran a salmon-farming business in Washington state.
Melamine has “infected the whole system in China,” he said.

Even some Chinese feed suppliers are no longer denying the commonality of melamine spiking:

More than 15 feed suppliers in various parts of China were contacted for this story. Most of them declined to comment or said they didn’t add melamine. But some of them said the practice of spiking feed with it had been going on for at least the last six years, with inspectors checking some types of feed products more tightly than others.

The US FDA is not yet testing for melamine in seafood and it seems most private testing outfits do not do so either.
For more on how to handle China quality issues (and in the spirit of “here we go again), check out the following posts we have done on this issue:
— “China Products: Ya Want Quality? I Got Quality.
— “China Quality Control: Darkness Before The Dawn.
— “Quality Control Direct From The China Factory.
— “China Products: Forget Trust, Just Verify.
— “China Product Outsourcing Done Right: A Sort Of Guide.
— “China Product Problems: What’s Morality Got To Do With It?
— “China Products: Quality Costs Extra
The biggest problem with melamine, however, is that it is so damn difficult to spot.
What should we do? I would particularly love to hear from people involved in the Chinese food business.

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Dan Harris

I am a founder of Harris Bricken, an international law firm with lawyers in Los Angeles, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle, China and Spain.

I mostly represent companies doing business in emerging market countries. It has taken me many years to build my network and it takes constant communication and travel to maintain it. My work has been as varied as securing the release of two improperly held helicopters in Papua New Guinea, setting up a legal framework to move slag from Canada to Poland’s interior, overseeing hundreds of litigation and arbitration matters in Korea, helping someone avoid terrorism charges in Japan, and seizing fish product in China to collect on a debt.

I was named as one of only three Washington State Amazing Lawyers in International Law, I am AV rated by Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (its highest rating), I am rated 10.0 by AVVO.com (its highest rating), and I am a SuperLawyer.

I am a frequent writer and public speaker on doing business in Asia and I constantly travel between the United States and Asia. I most commonly speak on China law issues and I am the lead writer of the award winning China Law Blog (www.chinalawblog.com). Forbes Magazine, Fortune Magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Investors Business Daily, Business Week, The National Law Journal, The Washington Post, The ABA Journal, The Economist, Newsweek, NPR, The New York Times and Inside Counsel have all interviewed me regarding various aspects of my international law practice.

I am licensed in Washington, Illinois, and Alaska.

In tandem with the international law team at my firm, I focus on setting up/registering companies overseas (via WFOEs, Rep Offices or Joint Ventures), drafting international contracts (NDAs, OEM Agreements, licensing, distribution, etc.), protecting IP (trademarks, trade secrets, copyrights and patents), and overseeing M&A transactions.

  • James G

    2 very close families members attended the New Orleans Jazz fest for 20+ years, stopping only the year of Hurricane Katrina. They told me New Orleans used to be a town where one could, simply by walking down the street, easily find men selling freshly caught fish and shrimp; head still on, etc.
    In the years before Katrina there were drastic changes: street protests by domestic fish industry workers who would tell tourists to ask the restaurants where they got their crawfish, shrimp, etc. The street vendors pretty much disappeared. I am not an expert on the fishing industry but it seems amazing that wholesale fish vendors in Louisiana would choose to import crawfish, which don’t seem to be expensive to raise and seem perfectly suited for local fisheries.
    That the U.S. mainly imports fish, especially crawfish, doesn’t necessarily sit that well with me. Yes I know, the market dictates prices, and I imagine many would sneer at anyone who didn’t bow to the supposed superiority of getting the lowest possible price on any and every product. However, I wonder if having a strong domestic fishing industry would contribute to smarter management of inland and coastal water resources? FDA quality control is already woeful on domesticly produced goods, and now they have to check such a large volume of imports as well?
    I have noticed an explosion in the number of restaurants that sell Tilapia, I suppose this is due to fish farms in China. 3 or 4 years ago, it was the unknown fish, now, its laughably common. What also is common is mislabeled fish – from high end sushi restaurants to chain supermarkets, people are selling one thing as another, and (supposedly) many restauranteurs don’t even know that they have been hoodwinked.
    Then of course there is the cleanliness factor. I find the standards for China to be deplorable, and the amount of deception in food preparation frustrated me when I lived there. Should this become a problem with fish thats imported to this country, that spells trouble.

  • David Oliver

    I don’t think its hard to spot melamine, its more a case of it never occurred to most people to test food products for it as there was no logical reason to.
    Given the Chinese government’s efforts to improve the country’s reputation I think most people would find it too risky to use melamine now. I would be more worried about what other illegal additives or practices are going to be discovered. Food safety will continue to be a major issue in China for many years and its just a matter of time before the next scandal breaks.
    The latest story I heard about the dairy industry is that some farmers used to add cow’s urine to the milk … I guess that would give a higher nitorgen/ protein reading …

  • PaulR

    Melamine is only suspected to be harmful to infants, if ingested directly – ie) melamine directly added to milk powder. As far as I can see, the fact that a shrimp ingests some melamine, then you ingest the shrimp means absolutely nothing at all.
    Of course, the bigger question then is – do we know what we are eating? The answer is “maybe not” but that applies many things. As far as the US goes, it should be noted that the vast majority of FDA “notice of action” are against food from Mexico, not China. This will always be half a political issue as much as food-safety issue.

  • I love how people bend over backwards to excuse this kind of blatant unethical practice.
    Rationale law?

  • @ PaulR
    Kidney stones form in adults when too much of certain chemicals is present. The kidneys eject these large crystals to prevent damage in the kidney itself. A kidney stone is a symptom of poisoning or a dietary imbalance.
    Chinese companies deliberately use the chemical to up the protein content in food. Entirely unethical and completely wrong.
    On another note, as “garage biotech” emerges in the US, there is a woman working on modifying a bacteria to glow in the presence of melamine. So US consumers won’t have to rely on shady food producers, importers or the useless FDA.

  • glen wilkins

    @ The Running Man
    I completely agree. That the deliberate poisoning of foodstuffs is brushed off as “due to a lack of oversight” rather than utterly morally repugnant is mind boggling. No wonder Confucian thought ranked merchants so low on the social totem pole.
    I think the melamine situation shows how weak the Chinese legal system is in protecting the individual citizen. I know this blog generally takes the view that things are moving forward in China’s legal arena, but there is still a long, long way to go (还有很长的路要走。). Unsavory businesses operate without the fear of litigation that would keep their Western counterparts honest (or at the very least, cautious). China needs more ambulance chasers, and I mean that in earnest.

  • Greg: On another note, as “garage biotech” emerges in the US, there is a woman working on modifying a bacteria to glow in the presence of melamine. So US consumers won’t have to rely on shady food producers, importers or the useless FDA.
    Am I the only one here that is worried that “garage biotech” is going to cause more problems than it solves?

  • SUNIL THAMPY

    The ‘additives’ issue in food from China is widespread and not just restricted to milk powder or fish.While melamine does not have a logical functional role to play in tomato paste ( a product we deal in ),there are many other additives which are added into tomato paste to reduce the cost of the product.This is not allowed as per the standards of China nor as per the internationally negotiated and accepted CODEX standards of which China is a part. We are currently trying to figure out how to raise this issue with the Chinese Government but finding that this is no easy task as this issue has still not had any casualities and most of the product is currently exported .The Government Department handling enforcement of food standards,the CIQ,has been finding logic for why adding ‘stuff’ to tomato paste is acceptable,rather than trying to set the house in order.
    Would welcome any suggestions on how to get some action from the Government’s side from people who have been there before.

  • @ Twofish:
    The article I read discussed various potential problems at length. Homemade bioweapons, horrible mutations of plants and animals, those plants and animals being able to pass their warped genetic material to the outside world, accidents that cause death and destruction,etc. Alot of “Island of Dr. Moreau”, “Attack of the Mushroom People” and other campy sci-fi scenarios that don’t seem that unplausible anymore.
    @ SUNIL
    I don’t know about everyone else, but I would love to know why melamine has a functional role in tomato paste while it is considered hazardous in other foods.

  • SUNIL THAMPY

    Greg,
    What I mentioned was that melamine “does not” have a logical functional role to play in tomato paste ( like in Milk products or Pet Foods where addition of melamine hikes up the protein readings – Kjeldahl’s method which is still mostly used for protein analysis,measures protein content in Nitrogen equivalents – both protein and melamine contain Nitrogen ).
    Best regards,
    Sunil Thampy