back to article Melamine, poisons and the misappliance of science

As melamine alerts reverberate around the world in the wake of China's dairy export industry, it affords us an opportunity to look at bad chemistry while considering the scale of the global food market. And how vulnerable consumers are when garden-variety greed, not terrorism, is the driver in mass poisonings. In the first …


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  1. Anonymous Coward

    no more

    no more Chinese-made foodstuff for me from now on... not if I can help it...

  2. Anonymous Coward

    All is lost

    Greed is the new god.

    High margins, high dividends, low wages and low quality and annihilation for anyone or anything that gets in the way of the Profit.

    Our current Civilisation is fundamentally driven by Greed, it's totally fucked up and can't be far away from collapsing altogether.

    Look around you if you don't believe me,

  3. Phil Tanner

    So it's just me then

    That sees a "contains protein 160-300 percent" as a clear case of bullshit? I mean, I understand how salami can contain 110% pork (weight of dried salami significantly under weight of hydrated flesh)... But a powder that's 300% protein...


  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Melamine in Cadbury's chocolate? Looking for a libel suit or do you know something I don't?

  5. Jolyon Ralph

    Um. 300% protein?

    So, one kilo of the powder contains up to 3 kilos of protein?

    Ok, so obviously they didn't mean that, they meant that it contains the equivalent of three times the protein value. Which is disturbing as it means that anyone who bought into this would have been completely aware that this was something highly dodgy (either that or had no comprehension of basic mathematics).

  6. This post has been deleted by its author

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    You get what you pay for

    Just like Outsourcing, you pay shite, you get shite.

    And i'd like to think that its the capital of greed, the USA, with the problem. Sadly stories like this show that the greed culture is spreading round the globe as US culture does.

    Scares teh bejesus out of me, dont like to think about it, going back to to B3ta.

  8. andy


    That's taking the piss...

  9. Nano nano

    Extra test

    OK, so it's now got to pass the protein test AND the melamine test ...

    Goes to show yet again that testing to simplistic targets can have unintended consequences !

  10. Sean Kennedy

    Greed is new god? I think not

    Greed has been the driving motivator since before we even took to the trees. Since we dimly became aware of wanting what someone else has, greed has been there.

    And you know what? Greed is good.

    It's good for the economy, it's good for humanity. Without greed, civilization wouldn't be anywhere near as advanced as it is, if there were even a civilization to begin with. If there were even any hairless monkeys around to begin with.

    It's short sighted greed that hurts. Sure, I can push off this tainted product today to make a buck, but that revenue source dries up pretty quickly. If, instead, I act responsibly, I could have a long lasting revenue source.

    It's greed without wisdom, without responsibility, that harms us. By the way, both of those noble traits can be traced back to, you guessed it, greed.

  11. Paul Murphy

    Some info on the contaminated pet food please

    Since our cat has suffered from some sort of poisoning recently and it would be useful to see if this may have been a cause.


  12. Ian Michael Gumby

    No Need to Panic...

    This is what you get from globalization.

    The junior exec who brings in these chemicals from the west is heralded as a genius at price cutting and increasing profits from global sourcing.

    Then when the shite hits the fan, he has some plausible denial in that he trusted his Chinese source. So the West blames the Chinese. And so on. Only the consumer gets hurt, if only in a couple of these events.

    The point is that until you have laws that are equivalent in each country, you will always have this risk.

    Sometimes getting the cheaper product is not the best thing nor the most cost effective. As industries learn this from paying lawyers millions and the mass groups of plaintiffs, along with the loss of trust and sales, there will be a shift away from the global economy. Cheaper products of dubious sources... will hopefully be a thing of the past.

    Lets hope that the B-Schools track these issues and bee-itch slap it in to their current crop of grad students. Being penny wise and pound foolish doesn't work.

  13. Muscleguy

    What is being tested for?

    This just exemplifies that science uses a sort of doublespeak when it comes to testing things. Usually what is being tested for is a proxy, something that, all other things being equal, represents that intended to be tested for. So for eg the test for protein is usually actually a test for nitrogen content since well over 99% of the nitrogen in genuine biological samples will be in protein (unless you are testing kidneys which have large amounts of urea in them).

    If I want to measure the amount of dna in an aqueous sample I will put it in a spectrophotometer and measure its absorbance at iirc 80nm wavelength (that unit subject to revision). RNA absorbs at a shorter wavelength. Measuring other wavelengthts can give you an idea of protein contamination. However that all assumes that there is nothing else in there that absorbs at these wavelengths.

    Food testing thus relies on assumptions being true. If a supplier adds another nitrogenous compound (urea in milk won't do, it's yellow, it smells and tastes) then it subverts the testing regime.

    We really need better and more specific testing techniques. Tests that actually directly measure that which they claim to measure. Only then will we have some sort of food security from such scams.

  14. Schultz

    You are what you eat

    , so enjoy your meal! And remember, an apple a day ... beats the synthetic nonsense in the frozen foods section. Unless it's the synthetic apple grown on dutch cotton fields. Or it's heavily poisoned with insectizides.

  15. Dave Jones

    It's not the melamine

    Melamine by itself has a toxic dose of about the same value as table salt. So does a related compound called cyanuric acid. Together they make insoluble crystals that form stones in organs like the kidneys. That's what's sickening babies now, not any toxicity. Cyanuric acid is used in animal feed and is considered harmless for that use. See

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    The antidote to greed... communism. This would never have happened under communism.

    Oh, wait...

  17. Bad Beaver

    T'is what happens

    if your lord is money and all you do is to whinge and cry for cheaper and cheaper goods, craving for more and more. Greed killed your cat and is now out to kill your baby too. The irony is that the worship of profit — as AC kindly pointed out above — returns its ugly spawn right to everybody's pantry and refrigerator with no social discrimination. That is because your high value brand-product is as much part of this as everything else. Just awesome.

  18. Lotaresco

    Blame the consumer

    I do the IT stuff, my partner runs a food business. The aim of that business is to only sell good quality food traceable from the fields where it is grown to the package delivered to the customer. The business will close this year because consumers really aren't interested. The question asked over and over again is "can you do that cheaper?" Sure, like some other makers it would be possible to stop using lean meat, fresh vegetables and fruit and use processed fat and salt and sugar with acidity regulators, "extenders", colourings flavourings and preservatives. And it seems that's what the customers want as long as the label makes some ludicrous claim about "quality".

  19. Bad Beaver

    @ Sean Kennedy

    If you want a positive wrapper for "greed", you call it "aspiration".

  20. Greg Andrews

    "step on"

    The phrase "step on" was used a couple of times in the article, but in a way that this .us reader isn't familiar with:

    "the compound had been used to step on wheat to boost nitrogen determinations" and "finding cheap things with a certain utility in stepping on food additives"

    Does it mean "improve upon" or "do better than"?

  21. Muscleguy

    UK pussies safe

    Paul Murphy the contaminated cat food was in the US there is no evidence it reached here. So if your moggy is ill it will not be because of melamine poisoning. Take it to a vet.

  22. Frumious Bandersnatch


    Many other news sources picked this up. You probably didn't notice it. The Register got it right, no question of libel.

  23. Frumious Bandersnatch

    @Sean Kennedy

    Hmmm... Gordon Gecko meets Enlightened Self-Interest. Still comes off sounding like a MOTU.

  24. Marco

    Re: Greed is new god? I think not

    Welcome back, Gordon. Nice to see you in business again! Nothing much has changed, huh?

  25. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I love it, rah rah china rah

    Becouse there havn't been food issues from more or less every nation at one point in time or another, but becouse it's China you all get a raging hard on.

    As mentioned, tis about as toxic as table salt, do some investigation it's how various companies have combined the stuff that has caused problems, so in the case of pet food it isn't the fault of the Chinese but the septics.

  26. Frumious Bandersnatch

    Random(er) testing

    Interesting comments by Ian Michael Gumby: "The point is that until you have laws that are equivalent in each country, you will always have this risk." and Muscleguy on the intricacies of testing (not being an exact science after all). I'm not so sure that having equivalent laws in each country is really the solution, especially if that entails standardised testing. If the tests are known, and if they tend to test by proxy (second poster) then it means that a fraudster who knows how to game the system has less of a chance of getting caught. It's analogous to the problem with computer viruses... having a large, homogenous population of hosts (eg, windows machines) tends to be more at risk of severe malware outbreaks than an ecosystem with more heterogeneity. Maybe I'm reading too much into the first poster's ideas about harmonising laws across countries, and there's no suggestion of harmonising testing procedure, but rather things like agreed lists of prohibited substance (which would be a good thing in my opinion; banning things like DDT across the board, instead of only in developed countries, would be a major win). Anyway, rambling a bit, but the point I wanted to make about testing was perhaps best practices should be updated to ensure that labs which use cheap, proxy testing are required to submit smaller random samples of product to more stringent tests designed to positively identify exactly what's in it. Such secondary testing needn't add much to the overall cost of testing, and the testing regime could be hardened against gaming by (for example) blinding of samples (so the testers don't know where the samples are coming from) and deliberate introduction of known-bad (adulterated) samples into the system (so failure to detect them would provide evidence of systemic errors). Protocols for doing this in a decentralised/distributed way seem feasible to me (thinking of it as essentially a cryptographic protocol with Byzantine fault tolerance) and should be far superior to any centralised control system, with its attendant risks of problems being hushed up for political or (short-term) financial gain. The system should be capable of producing a single "confidence" metric for individual suppliers and/or products...

    These two Reg articles come to mind (keywords: AI, randomness):

  27. Dave The Cardboard Box

    My cat just peed a plastic fork

    Probably the combination of melamine and urea.

    Chemistry has so many practical applications in household pets.

  28. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    Call the Waaaabulance..

    This is just more of the over-clean clap trap that lead to green house kids developing lung collapsing asthma and nose exploding allergies. Not to mention the super bug.

    A good dose of poison never did anyone any harm. Builds up the immune system and all that.

    Bless her heart, my dear ol' mum fed me two spoonfuls of rat poison and a fistful of nightshade berries right after my daily beating and it did me the world of good.

    Now the miracle of science includes a healthy dose of several poisons right in the food we eat. Stop knocking progress and remember, the free market works.

  29. Bad Beaver

    @ look

    So if I get you right it is not the fault of the greedy Chinese producers stretching their product with melamin that people/animals get ill once said product is combined with other chemicals bringing out the harm in the "toxic as tablesalt" substance, a reaction that would not have occurred had the product not been stretched, yes?

    Tell you what, it's just as much the greedy Chinese's fault as it is the cheap & clueless makers who buy their product as it is the cheap consumers. Thing is, as next to everything is cheaped-out to China these days, consumers are hard pressed to make a good shopping decision, even if they are not cheap.

    So if people get a little miffed at certain business-ethics of certain Chinese companies, it might be because issues like this one illustrate how globalisation slowly drags the living standard of developed countries down to 3rd world level in a process that is hard to escape from for the average citizen.

    Having to answer a question about the benefits of globalisation with "renal failure" seems slightly off the "desirable" chart.

  30. ian

    You are what you buy

    As I recall, the Chinese masses were critical of Westerners because they didn't like having their tykes playing with lead-painted toys from China. Or having their silly pets poisoned by pet food from China.

    It seems Westerners are actually the canary in the coal mine. Pay attention Chinese masses, you too will suffer!

    Where is the dead bird icon when its so appropriate?

  31. P. Lee

    re: Greed is God

    Greed isn't just the desire for more, its the desire for more over all other considerations.

    There is an unholy alliance between greed and scale. If you make 10 cans of dogfood, selling for GBP 2.50 each, there isn't much incentive to reduce costs by 3 pence. If you make 100m cans of dogfood, reducing costs by 3p per can nets a significant bonus for the manager involved. Increased scale increases the rewards for doing bad things.

    The companies externalised the costs (researching/keeping track of the supply chain) and customers ended up paying for it.

    This is why its actually worthwhile protecting all those inefficient Italian and French farmers with the CAP - cheap food is scary food. The more processing and human interference food goes through, the greater the probability it has been altered for profitability over nourishment. That's why I object to gm food - it permanently (and without labelling) messes with the food at source, depriving me of the ability to choose. I want to be able to tell if my tomatoes are ripe by looking at how red they are. I don't want unripe tomatoes to look red because they have fish genes in them.

    ...and the antidote to greed is not enforced communism, its to care for those within your sphere of influence as much as you care for yourself.

    Tux, he knows to eat fresh.

  32. Tim

    It was fraud, not an error

    Some people are trying to minimize the impact of adding melamine to food by claiming that melamine is "only" as poisonous as table salt. No amount of melamine should be present in food; it is added for only one reason, and that is to fraudulently rig a standard test for protein.

    Where does it end? A Chinese company sold ethylene glycol as "TD glycerine", a "glycerine substitute". Cough syrup containing the ethylene glycol "glycerine sunstitute" has killed several people, and some medical people estimate that the death toll may be in the tens of thousands.

  33. RW

    You have hit the nail on the head

    By writing "western firms in the food industry working the territory for the best possible deals, in the process giving up tight supervision and quality control of their suppliers."

    HOWEVER: the word "best" in that sentence is inappropriate. "Cheapest" would be more precise. Best implies more than cheapest; it implies quality, value for money.

    Walmart is perhaps the corporate apotheosis of this endless pursuit of cheap. If you buy anything at Walmart, including brand name goods, you have to be very careful it hasn't in some way been cheapened "expressly for Walmart." Example: the Rubbermaid company makes a line of heavy-duty garbage cans called "Brute". You can buy Rubbermaid garbage cans at Walmart labeled "Brute" but if you hold them up to the light, they are nearly transparent: hardly "heavy duty." Cheaper than the real thing elsewhere but not anything like as serviceable.

    It's gotten to the point I don't bother buying anything at Walmart: it's all crap, most of it coincidentally made in China.

    The Chinese are well aware that they're making crap. One Chinese government minister said, in effect, quite bitching about the quality of Chinese-made goods. If western business didn't relentlessly press Chinese manufacturers on price, we wouldn't be turning out useless crap.

  34. Anonymous Coward

    Precipitation in the kidneys?

    Did I read that right?

    I always thought precipitation was a fancy word for rain. So if it can create a localised weather system then maybe China weren't that far off the mark when they claimed they were going to build a weather machine for the Olympics.

  35. Norfolk Enchants Paris

    A few points

    Point 1: There are so many at fault here but it's a good lesson - as people have pointed out - that you gets what you pays for. Except that part of the problem is the way that this was handled. It reminds me of the tainted Olive Oil scandal of many moons ago, and the antifreeze-as-wine scandal of more moons ago than that.

    Point 2: It's not unique to China, and when you do business there it's most definitely done by their rule, so it's also not fair to point the ginger at the western outfits either.

    Pont 3: Most of the companies associated with this (Cadbury's etc) buy their ingradients (e.g. milk powder) in good faith. General tests for proteins in milk are fooled by Melamine which is how it snuck by the testing that is done. So it's not entirely their fault either.

    Point 4: Until I read the bootnote, I thought maybe Dick Destiny was a retired pron star now living out his days as a Reg hack, but sadly no.

  36. Martin Usher

    Melamine is not a protein

    Its what you cut stuff containing protein with in order for it to analyze as having a higher protein content than it actually has. Its not a foodstuff. So, top to bottom, its a scam. Its food adulteration on a scale that's not been seen since the early 1900s (Upton Sinclair -- "The Jungle").

    The problem's the so-called Smiley Face Curve, the idea that global corporations don't need to own any means of producing goods, they make the profit through global branding, marketing and sales (at the beginning and end of the product cycle -- there's no money in actual production).

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Codex Alimentarius

    And its effect in various worldwide legislation (HACCP methodology) should stop this from spreading to the rest of the world. Any company that even contemplated using this 'miracle' protein enhancement powder for human foodstuff was blatantly flouting legal requirements. The Chinese government will not be taking this happily, The impact on the Chinese economy will be substantial, Several large suppliers of pre packaged food I am aware of have been asked by customers to give assurance that no part of the products they supply originates from China. I suspect that the Chinese will deal with this in their typical manner and send a bill for a bullet to a couple of recently bereaved families. Basically, the chances of this stuff reaching Western food shelves is exceptionally minimal, but scares like this do sell tabloids.

  38. M Bancroft

    @"step on" By Greg Andrews

    I didn't think that was a "UK'ism" but here comes my definition

    "step on" means to dilute for the purpose of obtaining greater sale revenue. The aldulterant can be anything from harmless glucose or water (like "bulking" chicken breast in holland by churning/soaking with water to increase the sale weight of the breast pieces - illegal in the UK, so it's done on the continent), to the harmful scouring powder or battery acid.

    Usually applied to hard "Class A" drugs - as in "a bunch of smack heads turned dead in glasgow yesterday when it turned their skag had been stepped on with drain cleaner". Rather than the far more frightening "a bunch of helpless babies turned up dead in China after their milk had been stepped on with an industrial nitrogenous chemical".

  39. RogueElement
    Black Helicopters

    hurrah for Globalisation

    If it turns a profit... do it.

  40. Greg Andrews

    @M Bancroft

    Thanks. The term in the US (when talking about drugs) is usually "cut".

  41. Moss Icely Spaceport
    Thumb Down

    Chinese produce

    I don't care if its a table and chairs, an electronic item, shoes or food (shudder the thought), I ain't buying no Chinese produce.

    It is all low quality, badly made, nasty and possibly dangerous.

    I prefer to pay WAY over the odds for locally made/produced stuff.

  42. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Tomayto, Tomarto

    You say say "Greed of such towering heights that human life is peripheral", they say "Remaining competitive in a global market place."

  43. Anonymous Coward

    @Paul Murphy and the Reg

    Yep - more details on the pet food thing please.

    My healthy cat died quite suddenly (few weeks) this year from kidney failure. She was the only cat in the house that had wet food.

  44. Master Baker
    Paris Hilton

    Rip off

    My mate told me to take Zinc tablets because they'd make me cum like a horse.

    They didn't.

    They just gave me heartburn.

  45. George Speller

    Parmesan Cheese

    I once read that a bloke got jailed for selling "Parmesan Cheese" which turned out to be grated umbrella handles. I guessed the stuff was actually casein.

    (cheesey grin)

  46. Frumious Bandersnatch

    @Precipitation in the kidneys?

    You know what they say... if you're not part of the solution, you're part of the precipitate.

  47. James

    RE: @"step on" By Greg Andrews

    The term in the UK (when talking about drugs) is usually "cut", too. This is the first time I've seen step used in this way.

  48. James

    RE: @"step on" By Greg Andrews

    having said that, suddenly Happy Mondays association makes more sense (I think). Is it used because of them, or vice-versa?

  49. Stewart Haywood


    Well, it is good to know that the melamine is not toxic and will not kill babies. So nice of the yellow peril to use something safe. It is really comforting to know that the babies will die of malnutrition (because the melamine is used to replace missing protean) rather than kidney stones.

  50. Matware

    China a bad place to do this

    When i first saw this story, I thought those Chinese scam artist, ripping off the world! Then I thought about it and realised that in all odds the people who will get the blame in China will end up having a few grams of lead inserted into the back of their skulls, and a bill for the bullet sent to their family. The Americans, New Zealanders, etc will maybe face a fine, maybe face a few lawsuits etc, but that will be the extent of it. I expect China will treat this a lot more seriously than the rest of the world and be a lot more hash in its punishment of the offenders, and I suspect that may help stamp out this issue in China.

    As for the rest of us, well how a about, when a company does something as despicable as this (think cigarettes, asbestos etc), instead of suing a multinational company, the governments steps in, closes down the company liquidates its assets, and gives the proceeds to the victims and sends the CEO to gaol.

  51. Wayland Sothcott

    United Biscuits - Penguins

    I wrote to United Biscuits back in May about a packet of discusting tatsting Penguins. We both found them so horrible that we spat them out. I took them back to the shop and the staff and customers tried them and spat them out. We opened a freash pack and they were the same. I wrote to United Biscuits who sent me an envelope to post them back in. My United Biscuits contact wrote back saying all her staff and the Lab had tried them and there was nothing wrong with them.

    Obviously I know they were not right and I know that UB know they were not right. However they chose to bribe me with vouchers and call an end to the matter.

    Now I am thinking, could this have been Melamine?

    We need a puking icon.

  52. Alan Fisher

    What we need

    Is a law and decision making body with a large enough pair to make sure that when this happens, heads roll at the very highest levels, people screw up, CEO's pay and they pay BIG!! To remove the uberriche privilage of being immune to the law unless "it's bloody obvious and we can't hide it anymore"...make THEM as subject to the law as US and then we can stop this...either that or boycott and really boycott properly....hit them where it so obviously hurts...

    anyone who puts profits before the actual health and lives of it's customers deserves companies have to conform to International safety standards and it's time for food manufacturers to be subject to the same..

  53. AJames


    Thanks for casting some light on the news stories about malamine in food. This is the kind of useful news that I get only from The Register.

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