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Poisons for Profit: The Many Uses of Melamine September 14, 2008

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Current Events, Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts.

We saw this coming, didn’t we? Those of us who followed the story last year of pets dying because of tainted pet food. And the tainted toothpaste. And the tainted paint on kids’ toy beads. And the tainted cough syrup. What these stories had as a common denominator was that the poisonous product ingredients came out of China. And a few days ago The New York Times reported that a new poisoning scandal has been added to the list, and this time it has entered the realm of human food: An infant formula has caused kidney failure (and one death reported so far) to more than 400 babies  in seven Chinese provinces.


Accidents can happen, wrong ingredients can make their way into the food chain, and it’s usually because of negligence—unforgivable negligence, sometimes, but not because of ill will. But in all the cases mentioned above we’re talking about deliberate product tampering—not, as we have become ready to suspect since 9/11, as a form of terrorism, which could certainly happen, but just the old run-of-the-mill human greed: Product tampering to make the product cheaper. But why would putting poison in pet and infant food even appear to be an option? The answer is melamine. In the present case melamine was added to diluted milk in the baby formula to make the milk appear undiluted. Melamine is a non-food ingredient used in plastics and furniture production, in particular shelving. But it is high in nitrogen, so when added to a food ingredient such as gluten, it makes the product appear richer in protein (and thus more nutritious) than it actually is. Melamine is, in effect, highly toxic, and once ingested it combines with other chemicals to produce cyanuric acid that attacks the kidneys. The smaller the creature who ingests this product, the faster it develops renal failure. Babies would be at high risk. Cats and small dogs died in the U.S. in late 2006-early 2007 by the hundreds, perhaps (anecdotally) by the thousands. Bigger dogs died, too, but some were lucky and survived, usually with kidney damage.  Melamine had been added to the gluten in a variety of pet foods, manufactured by American companies—but the gluten was imported from China. Other parts of the world experienced similar problems with Chinese melamine added to other animal food products. In the 1970s Italian researchers looked into the practice of adding melamine to cattle feed, because cows are big enough to actually process small amounts of melamine, but the researchers warned against it because of the ill effects on smaller creatures, or in larger amounts. I guess Chinese manufacturers didn’t read those reports—or perhaps they read them and liked the math…


In case you think this might be a political ploy to poison and undermine the evil capitalistic West, think again—this is probably greed more than politics (rather ironic, coming from a Communist realm): The poison merchants are selling their lethal products to their own people first—case in point, the babies with kidney ailments, who have so far been found only in China (but, as the NY Times article says, watch out for those Chinese infant formula products in ethnic stores!). It’s not the first time, either—in 2004 13 babies died in China from tainted baby formula, made by the same manufacturers.


This could take us into an interesting discussion about the history of the concept of human rights, natural rights, human dignity, and personhood, and the reduction of consumers/citizens to having mere instrumental value. Endangering lives through deception (human or otherwise) or downright condemning them to death for a quick profit is not unheard of, in any culture, but that doesn’t make it any more morally acceptable. In some political traditions this is instantly recognized (although not always practiced), in others it is not. China is apparently taking heed, in the wake of the pet food scandal—the Chinese government is now conducting its own investigation into the tainted baby formula. Could this be a sign of genuine concern for the consumers? A belated, welcome recognition of fundamental human dignity? Or a concern for the image of China in the world? Here we are, with almost everything that we wear, and use in our homes and offices having originated in China, and our economy inextricably interwoven with China. This may look like just another isolated Chinese problem, but the overall international implications are staggering…. I guess I’m looking for some media outrage…the blogos seems to be waking up.



1. Moriae - September 14, 2008

The first motive really does seem to be greed, but if we think about it a bit more, it is much more likely ignorance. Greed is often the sort-term motive in many acts, but the foundation for such choices are really the lasting effects of ignorance. It may be profitible to endanger the lives of others because cheaper ingredients would increase profit margins, but the long term chances of following such a policy are myopic at best, and have positively life-shortening properties for any such miscreant in China. China suffers fools badly, and judicial solutions aren’t their first remedial inclinations.

I dount there are many members of Enron who don’t regret their choices now.

The world is divided (it seems) between those who can’t resist the temptations of short-term rewards (the lures of greed, to name just one) and those who understand what it means to invest in long-term benefits. It is the former class of people who make choices that endanger others, and often their choices comsume themselves as well (like Enron). I’m pretty certain that if these people really had the capacity to weigh the potential that many of their rotten choices carry with them (viewed retrospectively), and how they’ll also suffer from their myopic attempts to exploit others, I’m quite sure they’d stop in their tracks and do no more. But they won’t, and more tellingly, I don’t think they can. They are bewitched by a personal flaw that I really don’t think is a fault of their own making.

Myopic people like this are very different from others. It goes to support the Socratic notion that “no one knowingly does evil.” Their minds are different from others. I really do think we flatter ourselves if we believe this is a minority of people that inhabit this small orb. I think it is also a primary reason for much of the misery endured here. Without the ability to project what a particular choice may provide long-term, most people are ill placed to understand much of the misery that ultimately envelops their lives because of the choices they make. As we all know, many people mate with people they soon regret being intimate with. But once having done so, much of their future life if almost set in stone. Even they (later in life) will often remark about this truth themselves to others. Why are bad choices (such as poisoning others) so obvious to some but lost on others (who’ll shortly grovel and ask for forgiveness)? Why couldn’t they foresee the error of their ways in advance?

If your daughter came up to you and asked you, “Mom, I want to have a poor family as I mature through life, so what do I have to do to make sure this happens?” What comes to mind? We all know quite well what the short recipe for this is: “Well, dearie, drop out of school before 15, and mate and have three children with men who will not remain with you.” Notice, I haven’t even mentioned drugs, smoking, drinking, and a whole slug of other things that often attend but aren’t necessary to achieve this kind of end. Yet how many people (generally young) hae a taste for such weaknesses?

Why do we know this recipe would work? Why do so many of us know in our bones the truth of this, while so many others seem indifferent to this obvious truth? Education? We shouldn’t flatter ourselves about this. There are many people who are are not schooled but do not succumb to destructive truths such as these. People who think long-term know these things well and don’t have to be reminded of it, but our more impatient types do not seem to have a clue, nor do I think they’d understand it if even told (in a school or elsewhere). I mean, haven’t the people who make these types of mistakes already been told (and quite often by family and friends) that pursing rash choices will hurt them?

This is man’s lot. Newspapers have no idea what they’ll print in the next day’s edition, but they do have a tacit feeling that there are many people who will do the requisite stupidities of life to fill their pages in the morning. (How about ignoring a red light while controlling a train–while texting!–and kill 20 or more people?) LA Times has spilled quite a bit of ink on this recent story.

I think we are looking into man’s lot square in the face in things like this. The events chosen to display ignorance vary each day, but the root of it remains the same. Too many people to count who are sadly lacking in patience, circumspection, and good judgement are also people in a position to have their rotten choices make enduring (and regretable) effects on others, and most often on very innocent people.

I have no faith this will ever change. The sources of greed are always in flux, but the ignorance needed to hear this siren’s song is eternal.

2. Nina Rosenstand - September 15, 2008

You are more generous than I. I generally agree with the saying, ‘Never attribute to malice what can be sufficiently explained by ignorance,” but this phenomenon has been going on for so long, in different versions, that the deliberate deception by Sanlu, the Chinese baby formula manufacturers, seems clear. Perhaps not in terms of the far-reaching consequences (they didn’t set out to kill babies), but in terms of the self-serving decisions and cover-up (not the first time for that company) that brought on those consequences. Read today’s New York Times about how Sanlu, after a series of complaints from not only parents, but their New Zealand shareholder Fonterra, refused to recall the products–and how local authorities seem to have had little interest in following up on the concerns. And now the report is in: a second child died from the tainted formula this summer, and over 1200 babies so far have developed kidney problems. I would like to be generous, too, and in most cases truly bad consequences come out of ignorant rather than malicious deeds, but this time around I think we can call it greed…not murderous greed, just plain ol’ mindless greed. But it’s still deliberate. Aristotle has an interesting criterion for when something is an accident and not one’s fault (circumstances), and when one should be blamed for wrongdoing (free will): When something bad happens because of someone’s wrongful act, and that person is genuinely sorry and upset about the consequences, he (she) can be forgiven, because it (supposedly) shows that their act was not deliberate. We can ask ourselves how Sanlu has fared in that respect, if we are to trust The NY Times. And now, indeed, the media reactions seem to be coming in.

3. Dwight Furrow - September 16, 2008

Since moral outrage is one of the topics du jour–to whom should we express our outrage? The perpetrators of these crimes likely don’t care about our outrage (although I would think Chinese authorities are taking it seriously.)

Our outrage is more profitably directed toward our own government since we allegedly have some control over that. Currently, only 1.3% of food imports are inspected by the FDA, down from 1.8 in 2003, and 8% in 1992. (this doesn’t include meat or poultry which is regulated by the USDA).

“The FDA has so few resources, all it can do is target high-risk things, give a pass to everything else and hope it is OK,” says William Hubbard,a former FDA associate commissioner who retired in 2005.”The public probably has the perception … that they’re more protected than they really are.”

This is our deregulation regime at work, a regime promoted by conservatives for the past 30 years that puts profit before people.

Why don’t we direct the outrage where it can do some good.

4. Nina Rosenstand - September 18, 2008

I agree, the FDA is stretched thin, and it gives us a false sense of security to assume that because of its existence, our food supply is safe. Great USAToday op-ed piece by Scott Gottlieb from May 21, 2007, “How Safe is Our Food? FDA Could Do Better.” (I can’t add links–sorry.) I realize you’re using this opportunity to point out faults in our current administration. Be that as it may, I see outrage as having something more than a practical dimension. One thing is worrying about our own safety, and I’m really big on that, and placing blame if indeed there is blame to be placed–but I also think there is a certain kind of intrinsic value to righteous indignation. It serves as an awakening, of oneself as much as of others. And right now there are plenty of reasons to let one’s righteous indignation wake up, and throw blame around like spaghetti. Believe me, it’ll stick, regardless of whether we throw it to the right or the left. But in the meantime, more babies are dying in China, and Chinese yoghurt and ice cream have now been found to contain melamine, so I will continue to reserve a bit of my outrage for the demonstrated lack of business ethics unfolding on the other side of the world.

5. Deli - September 30, 2008

An excellent article.

Very important to also remember the culpable incompetence/ill will of local pet food manufacturers who put GLUTEN in their products in the first place. Why? To increase the protein level cheaply, and avoid having to use actual nutritive substances like (call me crazy) meat, which costs more.

Yes, the Chinese actions are clearly criminal, but gluten is a nasty, sticky, grain-derived protein that no carnivore should ever be eating. Anyone with the slightest knowledge of animal nutrition is aware of this. The health of most carnivores will suffer if you feed them regular uncontaminated gluten, so the melamine just makes an already bad picture worse.

So local pet food manufacturers are committing only a slightly milder version of the exact same crime as the Chinese – using pseudo ‘foods’ as cheap ‘filler’ to get the protein up, regardless of the costs to health, instead of actual nutritious ingredients.

6. Melamine and Responsibility « Philosophy On The Mesa - October 22, 2008

[…] In a previous thread, Deli made a good point: that food additives for profit, such as gluten, reveal essentially the same moral issue, and lack […]

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