Reports that Chinese producers regularly add melamine to animal feed are sparking new fears that more Canadian products could be contaminated with the industrial chemical.
The revelation, prompted by the discovery of melamine-tainted eggs in Hong Kong this past weekend, is the latest in a growing scandal in China that has so far included dairy, chocolate and pet food.
Only a modest amount of Canada's meat products - just under $200,000 worth, according to Statistics Canada - came from China in 2007. But last year, Canada imported nearly $15-million worth of protein substances and other ingredients primarily used to make animal feed from China.
The worry over potential melamine contamination prompted the Canadian Food Inspection Agency to create new rules earlier this month requiring importers to prove feed ingredients are melamine-free.
However, many in Canada's meat and animal-feed industry say they have been taking extra measures to guard against melamine since last year's pet-food scandal.
"There are no concerns for Canadians at this time," said Julie Latremouille, manager of regulatory affairs at the Animal Nutrition Association of Canada, which represents feed producers.
But not everyone agrees. The very fact that melamine has been found in animal feed and a host of other products coming from China should be setting off alarm bells in consumers' minds, according to Mark Kastel, co-director of The Cornucopia Institute, a Wisconsin-based advocacy group.
"There's no guarantee that just because we haven't seen [melamine in many food products]that we won't," he said.
Concerns over melamine contamination has been heating up over the past few months since reports that several Chinese infants died and thousands had to be hospitalized after drinking formula that contained the chemical. It is alleged that dairy suppliers were adding melamine to some products to make them appear more protein-rich in quality-control tests.
In Canada, several recalls of chocolate and other dairy products have been initiated in recent weeks over fears they may be contaminated with melamine. Canadians shouldn't stop worrying about whether the chemical is lurking in other food products, Mr. Kastel said. "We're waiting for the next shoe to drop. I think that's a reasonable assumption," he said. "If we don't feel comfortable feeding our pets Chinese-sourced material, why would we feel comfortable with our children eating this crap?"
Melamine is an acute problem in China, where babies have been exposed to high concentrations of the chemical in infant formula. In North America, consumers who are exposed to small amounts of the substance over long periods of time may ultimately face increased risks of developing certain diseases, he said.
"We know that [with]contamination with heavy metals or toxic chemicals, deleterious effects are not limited to instant acute symptoms or death," Mr. Kastel said.
Health Canada says that while "very low levels of melamine could be found in food due to its industrial uses ... the levels of melamine from these sources would not represent a human health risk."
But Mr. Kastel dismissed that assurance, citing the fact that no major studies have been done to determine whether melamine has an accumulative effect on human health.