Scientific Session at Expo to Ensure Chemical Safety of Imported Chinese Food Products

American consumers can take heart that safety issues with foods processed in China are spurring research in the U.S. on new methods of detecting dangerous contaminants such as melamine in adulterated foods. In addition, the Chinese government has instituted new laws designed to lower the risk of exports from that country.

Speaking at the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Food Expo®, Anaheim Hong Zhuang, Ph.D., a food scientist with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Athens, GA, said that food adulteration can be detected by infrared spectroscopy. This is a more rapid process than old methods. It takes an infrared fingerprint of the chemistry of the food and is able to identify even closely related foods and any contaminants within them.

"If we can identify food adulteration we can have a significant impact on consumers," Zhuang said. Infrared technology is so powerful that one olive oil can be distinguished from another, based on the cultivars the oil is derived from. Infrared technology can separate fresh poultry meat based on its age, so freshness can be determined. And it can identify honey that has been adulterated with sugar by determining glucose/sucrose/fructose content.

Zhuang outlined a more specific method based on research by Yongliang Liu, Ph.D., another USDA ARS researcher. The near-infrared fourier transform-Raman spectra method can be used to detect melamine contamination in food. Using this technique, it is relatively easy to identify melamine quickly at the receiving docks and before use if concentrations are greater than 1 percent. For example, the Raman shift can even detect the concentration of melamine in wheat flour; it can also detect cyanuric acid, a derivative of melamine.

Melamine is a compound often combined with formaldehyde to produce resin used for making products such as kitchenware and floor tiles. Its high nitrogen levels made it useful to manufacturers in China who used it to boost assayed protein content. The primary health hazard comes from the formation of kidney stones in infants and pets.

Yao-Wen Huang, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Georgia in Athens, said that Chinese food safety is a problem for both consumer and processor. This could be changed by the new U.S. food safety law that became effective June 1. The law addresses risk assessment, food safety standards, food production standards, inspection, and crisis management.

Huang said the depth of the crisis was evidenced in the deaths of humans and pets from melamine in processed Chinese dairy products and the damage it did to that country’s $31 billion per year food export industry. One problem, he also said, is that about 30 percent of small Chinese producers have failed to meet quality standards. Almost 80 percent of Chinese food producers are small, employing less than 10 workers.

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