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Hot Issue: Melamine

Kim Dong-Guk is a student at Dongguk University(DGU).  He didn't have breakfast, so while he was going to university, he bought a box of straw-wafer.  During the noon break, he ate red-bean bread with a friend, and bought a Snicker's chocolate-bar.  When his classes finished, he went to a supermarket, and bought a pineapple cake for his mother's birthday, and also bought potatoes, tomatoes, and vegetables for dinner.  At home, he cooked the food using a pot and a frying pan.  Straw-wafer, Snicker's chocolate-bar, pineapple cake, potatoes, tomatoes, vegetables, the pot and the frying pan have one thing in common.  Surprisingly, they all contain melamine.  Besides the examples mentioned in the above, many other foods and products spent in our daily lives also contain melamine.  For example, rice crackers, M&M's, milk, straw-cookies, etc.  Melmine has become a hot issue recently in Korea.  What is melamine, and how dangerous is it?  To answer these questions, The Post met with Lee Kwang-Keon, a professor of Food Resource Economic at DGU.

The Post : What is Melamine?

Lee : Melamine is an industrial chemical substance, used in the processing of Plastics.  To understand it more easily, let's compare melamine with caffeine.  The difference between caffeine and melamine is that caffeine is permitted for foods, although the quantity is regulated. However, it is internationally recognized that melamine should not be used in food processing.

The Post : There are many questions about Melamine.  How dangerous is it?

Lee : In China young children are dying of powdered milk which contains Melamine.  This fact means that it is obviously harmful although it is unclear whether the effect on adults is as same as on children.  The important thing is that when Melamine is absorbed in the body, it can combine with other substances, which might cause problems such as heart calculus or other serious diseases.  Many medical experts assert, although it is not certain, that melamine can also cause cancer.  Research continues about melamine, so we can't clearly define how dangerous it is. However, no one disagrees with the argument that even a slight amount of melamine might lead to big problems in the future.

Melamine, which threatens our health, has been used by a few Chinese business men to produce powdered milk.  They used melamine to increase the quantity of their product without increasing the cost.  Then this spring in China, an infant died of melamine poisoning.  The main concern had to do with the possibility of whether the melamine contained foods have been exported to countries in the world. Korea also has imported these products.  In Korea, even food which we generally take as safe food also has been made with  melamine-related materials. Many foods made by Korea companies have been inspected to find melamine too, because the origin of these food has been China.  Korean authorities are inspecting more foods to find melamine, as the situation gets worse and worse.  What  caused this situation? 

Predicting the Problem

  Those who export goods, citizens and organizations blame the government for this problem, because the Chinese government warned the Korean Government about this situation a year ago, so many people believed this crisis was predictable.  This could have been prevented but the Korean Government neglected to warn the public.  When melamine was  first detected in foods, the Korean government was very slow and inconsistent in their inspection and recalling  the affected food products.  They announced only a temporary solution not a fundamental solution, and also said that a small quantity of Melamine wasn't harmful to adults.  Even the authorities concerned about the issue passed the buck to others.  Professor Kwon Seung-Woo of Food Resource Economic at DGU said that the problem was critically made by the government's poor attitude toward food inspection.  He added that this accident proved that the Korea government didn't think food safety was important in Korea. 

Solution

(1) Goverment
  Nations like America and Singapore dealt with this situation swiftly to minimize potential damage.  Professor Kwon said that this was an important point.  He asserted that the Korea food safety system must change to minimize damages.  He said that the system for safety must be arranged in single systems  and dramatically changed to solve the long-term problem.  However, he emphasized that the Korea government must solve this problem.  He added that if Korea government keeps her old attitude toward the food system, any solution is useless.  In addition, the government must increase her abilities for acquiring information regarding food quality.  

(2) Citizens
  There are international groups that are also concerned about food and consumer safety.  They even monitor government food systems or inspect suspicious foods themselves.  For example. 'China Free' and 'Zero Calories' are groups interested in food safety.  Fortunately, in Korea there are many citizen organizations that are pro-active.  For example, "Green-Union", "Han Salim", "Consumer Union" etc. According to Choi Jun-Ho, a team chief of Seoul Environment which  is a citizens' organization, in the future citizen groups will need to become more involved to help prevent situations like this from occurring.   The group actions lead the government to make promise that the food safety system will change.  He added, these group must continue, because they change not only the government's attitude towards food safety but also  they increase awareness about food safety.  In order for these groups to continue, the public must show their support and participate actively so that food industry might get better.

Conclusion

  Professor Lee said "Unfortunately, problems like this will continue.  Especially in Korea where the country is not self-sufficient."  Although the system for food inspection is not perfect we must continue to try to improve the system.  It is important for our health and for future generations to minimize the damage caused by situations like this.  Both Koreans and Korean government must show concern and initiate real solution to protect health safety in this time of globalization.

Kim Ji-Heon  kim556@dongguk.edu

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