Detecting melamine in food: World`s labs are ready and able

According to a worldwide study by the EC's Joint Research Centre, the majority of laboratories tested are able to accurately measure levels of the harmful substance melamine in food. The Joint Research Centre was requested to perform the study by the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Consumers in the wake of the Chinese tainted milk scandal in 2008. Dr. Alejandro Herrero, Director of the JRC's Institute for Reference Materials and Measurements (IRMM), commented: 'This international study is one of the first and largest snapshots of labs' abilities to accurately measure melamine in food, and it confirms that the majority of labs are up to the job. Food laboratories in the EU, and their counterparts from around the globe, are able to accurately detect melamine in food – a pre-requisite for enforcing the limits set in EU legislation to protect consumers.'

Testing the testers

In the study, 114 analytical laboratories from around the globe volunteered to put their measurement competence to the test. The Joint Research Centre (JRC) organised the test, and carefully prepared samples of contaminated milk powder and a baking mix and sent them to the laboratories – without revealing the level of melamine present. The laboratories had to measure the melamine content of these 'blind' samples to the best of their abilities, and report their results back to the JRC.

Laboratories from 31 countries participated in the test, including Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the United States of America and 21 of the 27 EU Member States. The response to the call for volunteers was so overwhelming that the test was fully subscribed within days and the registration had to be closed prematurely.

How do the labs shape up?

The results of the study were that 74% of the 114 results for milk powder and 73% of the 112 results for the baking mix were within the acceptable range (defined by common international measurement guidelines). These figures are in line with other similar tests that benchmark measurement competence amongst analytical laboratories.

The values reported by the labs were also accompanied by values of measurement uncertainty, which is extremely important when measuring close to a legal limit. Here there was some scope for improvement, as around a quarter of the uncertainty values (23% milk powder, 22% baking mix) were underestimated.

The JRC researchers also compared the laboratories' results with the methods they used to reveal which measurement technique works best. In this case, isotope dilution mass spectrometry with a stable isotope labelled melamine was generally more accurate. A more detailed analysis of the influence of methods and instrumentation on the results is available in the report.

Accurate measurements for protecting consumers

Although the EU does not import milk or other dairy products from China, processed food such as chocolates or biscuits might contain contaminated milk powder. The European Commission therefore decided that food or feed containing milk products originating in - or transported from – China should be checked. Any product containing more than 2.5 mg/kg melamine must be destroyed .

In order to enforce the 2.5 mg/kg limit, official control laboratories must be able to measure the melamine content in food and feed within reasonable limits. Failure to hit the mark could result in products being destroyed needlessly or worse still, contaminated products making it through onto the European market.

To minimise the risk of similar incidents in future, the European Commission and its Member States vigilantly monitor the presence of contaminants in food. The Joint Research Centre develops and validates analytical methodology to facilitate the enforcement of EU legislation.

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