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Originally published November 26, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 26, 2008 at 4:10 PM

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Melamine found in U.S. infant formula

Traces of the industrial chemical melamine have been detected in samples of top-selling U.S. infant formula, but federal regulators insist...

The Associated Press

Traces of the industrial chemical melamine have been detected in samples of top-selling U.S. infant formula, but federal regulators insist the products are safe.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) said last month it was unable to identify any melamine exposure level as safe for infants, but a top offiial said it would be a "dangerous overreaction" for parents to stop feeding infant formula to babies who depend on it.

"The levels that we are detecting are extremely low," said Dr. Stephen Sundlof, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. "They should not be changing the diet."

Melamine is the chemical found in Chinese infant formula — in far larger concentrations — that has been blamed for killing at least three babies and making at least 50,000 others ill.

Previously undisclosed tests, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that the FDA detected melamine in a sample of one popular formula and the presence of cyanuric acid, a chemical relative of melamine, in the formula of a second manufacturer.

Separately, a third major formula maker said in-house tests had detected trace levels of melamine in its infant formula.

According to FDA data for tests of 77 formula samples, a trace concentration of melamine was detected in one product: Mead Johnson's Infant Formula Powder, Enfamil LIPIL with Iron. An FDA spreadsheet shows two tests were conducted on the Enfamil, with readings of 0.137 and 0.14 parts per million.

Three tests of Nestlé's Good Start Supreme Infant Formula with Iron detected an average of 0.247 parts per million of a melamine byproduct.

While the FDA said tests of 18 samples of formula made by Abbott Laboratories, including its Similac brand, did not detect melamine, spokesman Colin McBean said some company tests did find the chemical. He did not identify the product or the number of positive tests.

The three firms — Abbott Laboratories, Nestlé and Mead Johnson — manufacture more than 90 percent of all formula produced in the United States.

The FDA and other experts said the melamine contamination in U.S.-made formula had occurred during manufacturing rather than intentionally.

Sundlof said there have been no reports of human illness in the United States from melamine, which can bind with other chemicals in urine, potentially causing stones in the kidney or bladder and, in extreme cases, kidney failure.

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Melamine is used in some U.S. plastic food packaging and can rub off onto what we eat; it's also in a cleaning solution used on some food-processing equipment.

Sundlof said the positive test results "so far are in the trace range, and from a public-health or infant-health perspective, we consider those to be perfectly fine."

That's different from the impression of zero tolerance the agency left Oct. 3, when it stated: "FDA is currently unable to establish any level of melamine and melamine-related compounds in infant formula that does not raise public health concerns."

In China, melamine was intentionally dumped into watered-down milk to trick food-quality tests into showing higher protein levels than existed. The concentrations there were extraordinarily high, as much as 2,500 parts per million.

The concentrations in the FDA samples were 10,000 times smaller, the equivalent of a drop in a 64-gallon trash bin.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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