The action, announced by the European Food Safety Authority and the European Commission, significantly expands the potential geographic reach of a milk adulteration scandal in China to now include a range of foods sold around the world. The Europeans said cookies, toffees and chocolates were the major concerns.
The World Health Organization and the Unicef also expressed concern on Thursday about the Chinese milk contamination and the implications for other foods. In the United States, some consumer groups called on the Food and Drug Administration to restrict imports of foods that may contain suspected dairy ingredients from China.
In China, milk products contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine have sickened more than 50,000 young children in recent weeks and created a spiraling government scandal.
While it is illegal to import dairy products and baby formula from China into the European Union, European nations can and do import many processed foods containing milk powder as an ingredient that are manufactured outside of Europe. Such products could contain milk powder from China.
In 2007, the European Union imported from China about 19,500 tons of confectionary products, including pastries, cake and cookies, and about 1,250 tons of chocolate and other prepared foods containing cocoa.
“Children who consume both biscuits and chocolate could potentially exceed the T.D.I. by up to more than three times,” the European Food Safety Authority said Thursday, referring to the tolerable daily intake of melamine that the agency regards as safe. Levels above that could result in kidney stones, Ian Palombi, a spokesman for the agency, said in a telephone interview.
In Brussels, the European Commission was trying to assess the extent of the risk. “The problem is with the composite food products, which can be imported, even if they contain milk powder from China,” said Nina Papadoulaki, a spokeswoman for the commission. She said the Commission did not know how many companies sell snacks in Europe that were manufactured in China or included ingredients from China.
She said that member states and food companies in the European Union had been asked to test products for melamine in the past 10 days and so far had not detected a problem, although the testing was continuing.
In the United States, some consumer groups called for stricter regulation as well.
“It is now clear that China has exported dairy products like powdered milk and milk protein products around the globe and we know that some of them came to the United States,” said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food and Water Watch. “It is time for the F.D.A. to take this issue seriously and stop the import of dairy products from China until this situation is under control.”
The United States has imported two million pounds of a milk protein called casein this year, along with other powdered milk proteins that are used as ingredients in many processed foods, according to figures from the United States Department of Agriculture. This includes 293,000 pounds that were imported in July. The Food and Drug Administration did not immediately return calls for comment on Thursday.
Melamine is a chemical used in plastic manufacturing that can be added to foods to artificially increase their protein content in testing. Its presence was detected in pet foods originating from China last year.
Even if present in foods in Europe, milk powder contaminated with melamine is not likely to cause the kind of public health disaster that is occurring among Chinese infants. In China, babies drank contaminated milk powder as their sole source of nutrition for weeks if not months, and a handful have died.
Because the harm caused by melamine is related to someone’s weight, it is far less harmful to older children and not likely to be dangerous for adults. Also, for children and adults in Europe, melamine-contaminated milk powder is one small component of a broader diet. The toxic effects of melamine are cumulative, creating kidney stones that can in severe cases lead to kidney failure. Still, children who eat very large quantities of sweets could be at risk.
This week, a number of countries and companies that had previously removed Chinese dairy products from supermarket shelves have started removing snack foods containing milk powder as well. On Thursday, members of the Philippine Association of Supermarkets removed Chinese food products with milk ingredients.
In an increasingly globalized food economy, manufacturers use raw ingredients from all over the world, often making it difficult to track the origins.
For example, Kraft Foods, the maker of Oreo cookies, recently moved one of its large cookie factories from Australia to China. But Claire Regan, a spokeswoman for the company, said that most of the products Kraft made in China were distributed within China, although a limited number were exported. Most do not contain milk products from China, she said, and, when they do, the levels of such ingredients are very low. The Oreo product line does not contain milk ingredients from China, Ms. Regan said.