Rich Tremaine: The growing case for local products

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— When the headlines scream that children in China are dying because the industrial chemical melamine is being found in their milk and food products, this is a sad story, but it doesn't really hit close to home. After all, our milk doesn't have melamine in it, and this isn't like the melamine-coated boards that are used in cabinet construction - is it?

Well, according to a recent article in The New York Times, written by Professor James McWilliams, of Texas State University, it is the same melamine. And, as Professor McWilliams states, before we get too sanctimonious about how this is a problem about Chinese production and lack of environmental controls, we need to look closely at our own food production system. Yes, melamine is the coating that is used on fiber-board for cabinet and house construction. It is also an additive in cleaning products, cement, some plastics and some paints. But melamine also is used as an additive to certain feed products and as an additive to some fertilizers.

In China, the toxic effect of melamine has caused serious illnesses and several deaths in children, who are more susceptible to the small quantities of melamine in the food supply. However, this chemical also can create long-term liver and kidney problems.

Aside from the cleaning and construction uses, melamine is used as an additive to some wheat gluten, which may then be used in animal feeds that are produced in a number of countries, including the United States. The bottom line here is that melamine is in our food supply, though in lesser quantities than are being found in China.

So, we can avoid ingesting melamine by eating organic fruits and vegetables, right? Well, maybe, if the organic fertilizer (i.e. animal waste) is not from animals that were on feed that included melamine as a supplement.

And we can avoid ingesting melamine by eating organic meat products, right? Well, maybe, if the organic beef was grass-fed on lands that were not fertilized with commercial fertilizers containing melamine.

In sum, we probably cannot avoid all exposure to melamine, because it is fairly pervasive in our feed and our fertilizer products. However, we can minimize our exposure by supporting our local and nearby food producers. This is another reason for us to support our local beef producers and their grass-fed product and to support the local farm products that have been organically grown.

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