TAIPEI, Taiwan — International experts reached a consensus at a conference in Taipei yesterday that the standard of 2.5 ppm of melamine in food is adequate to ensure human health and stressed that cooperation between importing and exporting countries should be enhanced.
Despite the consensus, however, Taiwan’s Department of Health (DOH) had no immediate plans to modify its own more restrictive standard for melamine in food, said agency spokesman Wang Je-chau, who said the forum was simply a platform for experts to share their opinions.
Debate has raged over the standard since late September, when consumers panicked after a shipment of melamine-adulterated milk powder from China was found to have entered Taiwan.
Then DOH Minister Lin Fang-yue was forced to resign after setting a safety standard of 2.5 ppm (parts per million) of the chemical in most foods and 1 ppm for infant formula, as opposition politicians charged the standard was “loose” and would put local consumers at risk.
To appease consumer fears, the DOH now stipulates that processed foods and ingredients will be allowed for sale only if they test negative for melamine using highly sensitive LC-MS/MS (liquid chromatography-tandem mass spectrometry), which can detect as little as 0.05 ppm of the chemical in food.
That has led to disputes with local food suppliers, who have complained that products that would be found acceptable in the European Union, the United States and elsewhere were judged unacceptable in Taiwan.
At Friday’s conference on control measures for melamine presence in food, most experts agreed that the 2.5 ppm standard was an “action level” to prevent fraud, meaning that it was an appropriate level to distinguish adulteration from background contamination.
The experts also echoed previous international advisories on the issue that melamine, although toxic, is of low toxicity and thus poses low risk to human health.
Bill Jolly, deputy director of export standards of New Zealand’s Food Safety Authority, described trying to set standards for melamine at levels below 2.5 ppm as “more academic than practical,” arguing that only items containing melamine in traces above that level needed to be dealt with for public health purposes.
New Zealand’s standard for melamine is 5 ppm for food ingredients, 2.5 ppm for foods in their final form and 1 ppm for infant formula, according to a media release issued by the country’s Food Safety Authority Sept. 29.
Kang Jaw-jou, a professor in National Taiwan University’s Institute of Toxicology, appeared to take issue with the DOH’s standard, arguing that while all chemicals are toxic, and only the level of use and how they are used can determine its toxicity.
“We cannot chase after zero detection or zero tolerance, which is impossible. What we need is a standard based on risk assessment, not on numbers,” Kang said.
A number of the experts also argued that more attention needed to be placed on prevention measures than testing methods,