Melamine in Tableware: Questions and Answers
What is melamine?
Melamine is a chemical that has many industrial uses. In the United States, it is approved for use in the manufacturing of some cooking utensils, plates, plastic products, paper, paperboard, and industrial coatings, among other things. In addition, although it is not registered as a fertilizer in the U.S., melamine has been used as a fertilizer in some parts of the world.
Melamine may be used in the manufacturing of packaging for food products, but is not FDA-approved for direct addition to human food or animal feeds marketed in the U.S.
I recently read that plastic tableware from China contained high levels of melamine. Can the melamine from these products get into foods and drinks?
The Taiwan Consumers' Foundation recently tested plastic tableware made in China and found that it contained melamine at a level of 20,000 parts per billion. This type of tableware is manufactured with a substance called melamine-formaldehyde resin. It forms molecular structures that are molded, with heat, to form the shape of the tableware. A small amount of the melamine used to make the tableware is "left over" from this chemical reaction and remains in the plastic. This left-over melamine can migrate very slowly out of the plastic into food that comes into contact with the tableware.
If melamine from plastic tableware can get into foods and drinks, does it make the foods or drinks harmful to health?
It has been found that melamine does not migrate from melamine-formaldehyde tableware into most foods. The only measured migration, in tests, was from some samples (three out of 19 commercially available plates and cups) into acidic foods, under exaggerated conditions (that is, the food was held in the tableware at 160 oF for two hours). When adjusted for actual-use conditions (cold orange juice held in the tableware for about 15 minutes), the migration would be less than 10 parts of melamine per billion parts of juice.
This is 250 times lower than the level of melamine (alone or even in combination with related compounds – analogues – known to increase its toxicity) that FDA has concluded is acceptable in foods other than infant formula (2,500 parts per billion); in other words, well below the risk level. In addition, such highly acidic foods make up only about 10% of the total diet, so the dietary level of melamine in these scenarios would be less than one part per billion.
However, when highly acidic foods are heated to extreme temperatures (e.g.,160 ° F or higher), the amount of melamine that migrates out of the plastic can increase. Foods and drinks should not be heated on melamine-based dinnerware in microwave ovens. Only ceramic or other cookware which specifies that the cookware is microwave-safe should be used. The food may then be served on melamine-based tableware.
Should I stop using plastic tableware?
Foods and drinks may be served on plastic tableware. Plastic tableware that does not specify that it’s microwave-safe should not be used to heat foods and drinks.
How did FDA decide what level of melamine in food doesn’t pose a risk to health?
A safety and risk assessment estimates the risk that specific substances have on human health, based on the best scientific data available at the time. FDA has done this type of assessment to identify the risk posed by melamine and its analogues in foods (Interim Safety and Risk Assessment of Melamine and Its Analogues in Food for Humans).
The risk assessment was conducted by scientists from FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition and FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine, and included a review of the scientific literature on melamine toxicity. Animal studies also provided valuable information for this work. The assessment underwent peer review by a group of experts identified by an independent contractor.
What problems can melamine cause if people eat or drink food contaminated with it?
Products with melamine contamination above the levels noted in FDA’s risk assessment may put people at risk of conditions such as kidney stones and kidney failure, and of death. Signs of melamine poisoning may include irritability, blood in urine, little or no urine, signs of kidney infection, and / or high blood pressure.