European Union regulators on Thursday ordered rigorous testing of imports containing at least 15 percent milk powder after concluding that tainted milk powder from China may well be circulating in Europe and putting children at risk.
The action, announced by the European Food Safety Agency and the European Commission, significantly expands the potential geographic reach of a milk adulteration scandal in China to now include a range of foods sold around the world. The Europeans said cookies, toffees and chocolates are the major concerns.
The World Health Organization and the U.N. Children's Fund also expressed concern on Thursday about the Chinese milk contamination and the implications for other foods. In the United States, some consumer groups called on the Food and Drug Administration to restrict imports of foods that may contain suspected dairy ingredients from China.
Milk products in China contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine have sickened more than 50,000 young children in recent weeks.
While it is illegal to import dairy products and baby formula from China into the European Union, European nations import many processed foods containing milk powder manufactured outside of Europe. Such products could contain milk powder originating in China.
While countries throughout Asia have already pulled Chinese dairy products from supermarket shelves as a precaution, it is now clear that the danger could go beyond milk itself. In 2007, the European Union imported from China about 19,500 tons of confectionary products, such as pastry, cake and cookies or biscuits and about 1,250 tons of chocolate and other food preparations containing cocoa.
“Children who consume both such biscuits and chocolate could potentially exceed the TDI by up to more than three times,” the European Food Safety Agency said Thursday, referring to the maximum daily intake of melamine the agency regards as safe.
In Belgium, the European Commission was trying to assess the extent of the risk. “The problem is with the composite food products, which can be imported, even if they contain milk powder from China,” said Nina Papadoulaki, a spokeswoman.
She said that the commission did not know how many companies selling snacks in Europe were manufacturing in China or buying ingredients there.
She said that member states and food companies in the European Union — who are responsible for ensuring food safety — had been asked to test products for melamine in the past 10 days, and so far had not detected a problem.
In the U.S., some consumer groups called for stricter regulation as well.
“It is now clear that China has exported dairy products like powdered milk and milk protein products around the globe and we know that some of them came to the United States,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. “It is time for the FDA to take this issue seriously and stop the import of dairy products from China until this situation is under control.”
The United States this year has imported 2 million pounds of a milk protein called casein and other powdered milk proteins that are used as ingredients in many processed foods, according to FDA figures. This includes 293,000 pounds that were imported in July, when some Chinese authorities were aware of the contamination of dairy products with melamine.
The Food and Drug Administration did not immediately return calls for comment. Melamine is an industrial chemical used in plastics manufacturing that is sometimes be added to foods to artificially increase their apparent protein content in testing. Its presence was detected in pet foods originating from China last year.