In 2008, the world was shocked to learn that thousands of infants in China became ill—several even died—from drinking formula. It was discovered that a Chinese manufacturer of infant formula was adding melamine to the milk powder to artificially increase the protein content. Previously, animal foods containing melamine had been recalled as pets were dying throughout the world. More recently, there was a scare when melamine was detected in all of the major formulas made in the United States.
Although many of us are familiar with the melamine stories, few of us actually know what melamine is. It's a man-made chemical typically used to produce plastics for dishes, cleaning products, fertilizers and pesticides. It does not occur naturally in foods. What the Chinese manufacturers found was that it was recognized as a protein during testing, allowing them to use less milk protein in the formula powder. The idea was to dilute the milk to save money yet still have it pass testing. Melamine causes kidney failure if eaten; some infants were severely affected because the bulk of their nutrition came from formula.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began testing formulas manufactured in the United States to determine if the same practice was occurring here. The agency concluded that very small amounts of melamine were also found in the major formulas. It was declared that this contamination was probably due to methods of manufacturing, and that the amounts were too small to be of concern. Needless to say, after the pet food and Chinese formula scare, this statement was not very reassuring to parents who were formula-feeding their infants.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) both issued statements agreeing that American-made formulas do not contain significant amounts or melamine and are not considered unsafe for babies. The United States has also prohibited the importing of any dairy products, including milk powders, from China.
It has always been illegal for any U.S.-based company to add any ingredient to infant formula without approval by the FDA. Due to frequent testing, the likelihood of a similar event happening in the United States is unlikely. Still, we should be cautious to the possibility that any processed food is at risk for contamination, either through a faulty manufacturing process, contaminated soil or unsafe food handling. This would be another good reason to consider converting to whole foods or those that undergo a minimum of processing.
The good news is that the United States has rigid standards for food manufacturers and notifies consumers when there's a concern about food-borne illness. There's no way we can avoid occasional contamination due to the huge number of products available. But there are ways we can remain as safe as possible, such as eating organic produce. That's because non-organic produce, particularly fruits and vegetables grown in or near the ground—like greens, tomatoes and melons—run the risk of E. coli or pesticide contamination. It's also wise to avoid meats that are close to the expiration date and processed deli meats, which often contain additives to enhance the flavor and are prone to a bacterial contamination called listeria.
It's important to practice safe food handling, too. Use separate cutting surfaces for meats and produce and wash all knives, cutting boards and other utensils in hot, soapy water. Thoroughly cook eggs, don't leave food sitting out on the kitchen counter and pay careful attention to how you handle, wash, prepare and cook poultry.
If you're a mother-to-be with concerns about formula, consider breastfeeding. Breast milk is the least likely to be contaminated and is much easier for your baby to digest.
Our parenting advice is given as suggestions only. We recommend you also consult your healthcare provider, and urge you to contact them immediately if your question is urgent or about a medical condition.