After melamine-tainted milk sickened thousands of Chinese children, the recent announcement by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration was meant to calm American consumers. The nation may well import vast amounts of food and food ingredients from China, but don't worry. According to the FDA, a little melamine (2.5 parts per million) isn't harmful in most foods.

Sorry, but that's far from reassuring. Melamine, which triggered the pet food recalls about a year ago, is an ingredient used in plastics manufacturing. It's added to food products to falsely boost protein levels and mask food adulteration: in this case, watering down milk. The FDA essentially said there's an acceptable level for a contaminant (excluding baby formula) that is intentionally and illegally added to food.

That doesn't make sense. And it distracts from the real issues. Why is melamine in any food? And what steps are needed to ensure the safety of the estimated $2 trillion worth of food and other products imported into the United States each year?

It's one of the most significant public health issues facing the nation. According to the FDA, the volume of American imports is expected to triple by 2015. China offers an increasingly troubling case study about the need for caution and action. It's one of the world's largest agricultural producers and a major American food supplier.

China is like many developing nations from which U.S. food imports originate. Its regulatory system governing manufacturing and food processing is developing, too. And its safety record in both areas is cause for alarm. Toys manufactured in China were contaminated with lead, triggering massive recalls. Seafood imports have been found to contain drug residues and food additives. The melamine-tainted pet food was linked to a wheat gluten originating from several large Chinese food processors. After the recent melamine scare involving baby formula, a number of nations, including the European Union, have banned baby foods made with Chinese ingredients. Melamine can harm the kidneys.

An import ban is an extreme and politically tricky step, but it's an option that must remain under consideration as China's safety record continues to deteriorate. In the meantime, political leadership is needed to ensure effective policing of food imports. Too often, the discussion deteriorates into blaming the FDA. That overlooks that this chronically underfunded agency has the massive, almost overwhelming mission of safeguarding the nation's drugs and much of its foods. Yet it lacks much of the authority its sister agency, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has over food suppliers. Although the FDA's funding has improved somewhat, more needs to be done to strengthen this critical agency. One suggestion: invest in technology that would link regulatory agencies around the world, providing an early warning system when new contaminants are found.

The private sector must also share the responsibility for food import safety. According to experts, not enough companies audit or monitor the operations of the foreign food firms they do business with. More on-site supervision and inspection are needed, whether it's company staff or a third-party auditor.

Food adulteration isn't a new problem. There was a case in Minnesota in the 1980s that was eerily similar to the melamine situation: A wheat company in the state added urea to grain to boost its protein levels and value. At the same time, rapidly rising food imports add urgency to finding solutions. Few issues have greater importance than the safety of what's on the dinner table.


Because of incorrect information provided to the newspaper, a Friday editorial said Alaska Airlines would fly out of the Humphrey Terminal. The airline will use the Lindbergh Terminal at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport.