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01-12-09 Melamine: What's up with that?

What is melamine and how did it end up in food products?
Melamine is used to make a melamine resin and foam which can be used in products such as counter-tops, fabrics, glues, and flame retardants. When melamine is added to a food product, the food appears to have more protein than it actually does. The reason for this is that melamine and cyanuric acid, a melamine like compound, contain nitrogen in their structures. When an item is tested for its amount of crude protein, the most common measurement is not the actual amount of protein, but rather the amount of nitrogen in a compound. The nitrogen serves as a surrogate marker since nitrogen is in proteins. When melamine is added, the relative nitrogen content is higher, thus the product appears to have a higher protein content for marketing.

What is the complication from melamine ingestion?
Small amounts of melamine in the diet will not likely result in disease. Adulteration of food by intentionally adding melamine, however, may result in larger doses of melamine. Renal failure is the end stage disease from ingestion of large doses of the melamine in the diet. After ingestion, melamine and cyanuric acid may form crystals or stones in the urinary system. When unrecognized, these stones may cause an obstructive uropathy that may result in renal failure.

Where can I get more information?
There is information and recommendations on the websites of the Food and Drug Administration (
www.fda.gov/oc/opacom/hottopics/melamine/html) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (http://emergency.cdc.gov/agent/melamine/).
Any cases of possible melamine poisoning should be reported to the Tennessee Department of Health.(1-800-404-3006)

Question prepared by: Saralyn R. Williams, M.D. Medical Toxicologist