The World Health Organization (WHO) said on Friday it is developing a quick assessment tool to test for melamine contamination in food items, in the wake of a scandal involving Chinese dairy products tainted with the chemical.
"This tool may be used by government officials to decide on a 'level of concern' for melamine contamination," Jorgen Schlundt, director of WHO's department of food safety, zoonoses and foodborne diseases, said at a briefing.
"This way, we can ensure that contaminated food products are taken out of the system, while not causing undue concern over products that do not pose a health threat," he said, adding that contamination in small concentrations occurs in certain foods.
Melamine has been found in infant formula and other milk products from 22 Chinese dairy companies in the past weeks. Suppliers are believed to have added it to watered-down milk to cut costs because its high nitrogen content masks the resulting protein deficiency.
Imports ban 'totally wrong'
Japan, Brunei, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Tanzania, Hong Kong and Taiwan are some of the markets that have banned, suspended or recalled Chinese milk products following news of the melamine-tainted food items.
The European Union on Thursday also banned imports of baby food containing Chinese milk, while the European Commission called for more checks on other Chinese food imports.
Still, Schlundt said banning Chinese food imports is "totally wrong", as food safety is a worldwide problem and, in the ongoing case, the solution lies in optimizing China's reporting system in food safety.
"Food safety is a problem all over the world," Schlundt said, citing as an example the bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, that hit Europe in 1995.
In China's case, the current melamine incident was "aggravated by delays in reporting" on a local level, said Dr Hans Troedsson, the WHO Representative in China.
"These delays were probably a combination of ignorance and deliberate failure to report," Troedsson said, adding that the central government should improve the relevant reporting system.
(China Daily September 27, 2008)