30.10.08

Better cheating through chemistry.

I'm sure everyone's heard about the melamine scandal in China right now. At first, milk, then eggs, and now it seems to be in livestock feed, as well. I wondered, though: what is melamine, and why is it added? To increase the amount of protein reported, apparently. Ah, so it's a protein substitute?

Not quite. You see, the way many labs test for protein is to look for the total amount of nitrogen. Almost any type of nitrogen.

Now, behold the chemical structure of melamine.



This may be a bit gauche of me, but I find that vastly amusing. It's like Homer Simpson is running the feed lot:

"Dad, marbles won't work. The food inspectors test for nitrogen."

"Nitrogen, eh?" (dials up chemical company) Y'ello. I'm looking to purchase (reads notes) ... nitrogen."

"Certainly, sir. What sort?"

"Um... nitrogen."

"...nitrogen?"

"Yes."

"... all right. You mean, something with a lot of nitrogen?"

"...Yes. As much nitrogen as possible per... chemical."

"Hm. Well, how about melamine?"

"Does it have nitrogen?"

"Oh, yeah, plenty."

"Excellent. I'll take your melamine."

"But, sir! We have over 20,000 tonnes of it... hey, he hung up already."


And so was born a worldwide product recall, as people poured an industrial byproduct into their food, in order to inflate the quantity of their product in a market that only knows how to buy in bulk.

D'oh.

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Canadian explorer. Chemist by training, biologist by nature. Long-time supporter and participant in National Novel Writing Month. Known as "Aquadeo" in most Internet circles. Also known as "that guy with the pants" to people who have seen me in certain pants.