Saturday, October 4, 2008

More melamine in the food chain? This time lactoferrin

Another case of melamine contamination or just a tiny bit of scare? Princess and I were having dinner with some friends when we were discussing this news – Tatua’s product has been fouund to contain traces of melamine, and Cadbury has withdrawn 11 Chinese-made products, including chocolate eclairs sold in Australia, after tests found melamine in them.

Waikato's Tatua Co-operative Dairy Company has voluntarily suspended exports of dairy protein lactoferrin after tiny amounts of melamine were detected in its products in China.

China this month stopped production at Fonterra joint venture Sanlu after its baby formula containing melamine caused the deaths of four infants and made tens of thousands of babies sick. (Source

My google search tells me that South Korea has also found melamine in its lactoferrin. It remains to seen which other countries will come up with the same findings. What is at stake is the export of a high value protein that is extracted out of milk.

Tatua didn’t know of the contamination until one of its agents told it so. The CEO of the company Paul McGilvary said the company called in the New Zealand Food Safety Authority after a customer highlighted to Tatua of the discovery of a trace of melamine.

In boffin-speak, tests results showed contamination of less than four parts per million. The authority will take action at 2.5 parts per million but five parts per million is generally considered safe. According to an NZPA report, NZ food watchdog the NZ Food Safety Authority has no legal maximum residue level (MRL) for melamine in milk, even though in June it published MRLs for melamine at 0.3mg/kg in sheepmeats, and 0.15mg/kg in poultry and eggs. The funny thing is regulatory authorities are only coming to terms with how to set melamine limits for dairy products, including 2.5 parts per million in Hong Kong and McGilvary understood the US was using 10 parts and China was thinking about five parts.

Tatua now has to repair the international damage done to its lactoferrin. What it has to do is to retrace how melamine got into its product. It says its milk is unadulterated, and its process impeccable. Could it be the packaging? The insecticides use? Or the fetilizers? It will take at least a month to come out with some answers. What is also at stake is Tatua’s proprietary manufacturing process, which it sold to another dairy company Westland – also a producer of lactoferrin.

A satellite lactoferrin plant at Westland Milk Products in Hokitika has also found as having low levels of melamine contamination, and food safety officials said they were looking at the possibility that the contamination is being introduced by the manufacturing process (Source: Food and Beverage News)

Lactoferrin, which sells for about $500,000 per tonne, is used in baby formulas and dairy-based drinks. Fonterra also makes lactoferrin.

Mr McGilvary said Tatua, which has 112 suppliers, exports about 30 tonnes of lactoferrin per year, and he could not say when the suspension would end.

Series of unfortunate events
This is unfortunate for a dairy company hailed as one of the most successful competitors to Fonterra – Tatua has just announced record payout for milk solids for its farmers.

What is an acceptable level of melamine for the human body? Who knows! This phenomena is only just beginning to unravel. Now we know how fragile the human existence is. In the past, the hunter gatherer learnt of what to kill/what to eat and what to forage in the forest. Now, we have the benefit of science to tell us what is safe and what is not safe. Let’s hope the boffins are right.

Mom used to tell me not to microwave plastics. I used to ignore her. Now I have stopped using plastics to microwave my food – I am getting more paranoid by the day. So, better safe than sorry. I am microwaving only in ceramics/corning/glass.

Footnote: he NZ Food Safety Authority had on Sept 30th released a statement to say this:

With regards to the industry reports of the presence of incidental trace levels of melamine in lactoferrin, NZFSA confirms that one result from four tests of lactoferrin has returned a result at around the limit of detection of 1 ppm. This does not constitute a health hazard, particularly as lactoferrin is used as a minor ingredient and is not consumed as a food on its own.

“It is NZFSA’s belief that this trace level may have arisen out of this specific unique process and is continuing to work with the industry concerned to better understand the biochemistry as to why this is happening.

“From all 116 tests there is clearly no indication of any deliberate adulteration whatsoever and based on results to date we are confident that all New Zealand dairy products are fully compliant.”

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Obese? Blame it on your mom!

This is the best piece of news for those who constantly battle with their weight. We are fat because we could be genetically pre-disposed to being fat. I found this in an article on the Aug 20th issue of a weekend magazine. Now I don't feel so bad carrying that extra 5kg!

The article points to the risks of children being obese due to “metabolic imprinting” from their pregnant mother's high blood sugar levels. This imprint goes on to affect these babies’ weight, apparently.

Fat because of your genes?
We are also fat because evolution makes us predisposed to being so. The body’s weight command centre, at the hypothalamus, is calibrated to preserve rather than eliminate fat. Ah, so, no need to feel guilty about trying to shed the last 5 kg – it was always going to be hard.

Researchers also found that a genetic defect in your brain’s command centre could also affect as much as 70% of the variation in your weight.

Inside your brain is one little soldier receptor (melanocortin 4 receptor) that tells you to stop eating by triggering the feeling of you being full. If that soldier malfunctions, you are going to be eating, and eating.

Fat because of a virus?
That’s not all. Apparently a kind of virus can also make you fat. We have Nikhil Dhurandhar (an associate professor at Pennington Biomedical Centre in Baton Rouge) to thank for figuring this one.

Some 20 years ago, while treating obesity in India, he drew the link between obesity and chickens that died from carrying an avian virus (SMAM-1. He found these dead chooks to contain lots of fat in them.

Later when he worked with a human virus (adenovirus 36 or AD36), he found that in his lab, every specie of animal infected with AD36 became fat. This virus is present in 30% of obese people (is this a conclusive study? I don’t know. My guess is not.) and affects 15-17% of the human population.

Want to know if you have this fat virus? There is a company in Richmond (Virginia, USA) called Obetech that can conduct this test.

But what's the point? They haven't figured out how to get rid of the virus. This very smart professor Dhurandhar, he is now working on a possible vaccine for those infected with the AD36 virus. Bless him.

So, don’t beat yourself up if you are pre-disposed to being fat. The extra serving of pudding and extra serving of fatty meat may be the cause. But you can blame someone else now – your genes, your mom, and the bloody virus.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Underneath all skin - we are all the same

A friend of mine sent me this a few weeks ago. I think it is a very good read, for those of us who love to live in harmony; who love the ideal of being one race, one people, one nation, one world. I have taken the liberty to reproduce on this blog. Hope the owners of the content don't mind.

Race and prejudice in Malaysia
Sep 26, 08 6:22pm
teh tarik

MCPX The TehTarik sessions are the brainchild of a group of young Malaysians
at Cambridge University who desired a non-partisan platform to foster open
discussion on burning issues. Sessions are open to all as long as they have
a shared passion for Malaysia. The following is based on the discussion that
took place over a hot cup of self-made teh tarik.

The all-too-familiar tourism advertising gimmicks portray Malaysia as a
multi-cultural and pluralistic society, an emerging democracy where people
of all cultures, races, and religions live and prosper together; a society
where cultural differences are honoured and enduring ideals of humanity can
thrive. However, how far do these perceptions differ from the reality of the
Malaysian social fabric?

In Malaysia, the third question succeeding name and gender is almost always
regarding race. We are identified by our race and the fact is, for better or
for worse, the concept has been institutionalised. Though possibly relevant
historically, the current generation must ask whether these
institutionalised concepts are still appropriate.

At the time of independence when races served different economic functions,
leaders would have envisioned the country moving away from such divisive
concepts. But looking back 51 years on, it seems that divisions have
persisted and we have still not moved forward.

Notwithstanding the methodological limitations of opinion polls, the results
of the Merdeka Centre poll on race relations reveal a lack of understanding,
poor interaction and strong stereotypes across races.

A mere 36% of Chinese respondents as compared to 89% of Malay respondents
said they understand Malay culture. Interestingly, 84% of Chinese
respondents thought that Hari Raya Puasa is a Malay New Year celebration.

With regards to stereotypes, 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed
that Malays are lazy. 60% of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that
Indians cannot be trusted as compared to 20% of Indian respondents. A
majority of Chinese and Malay respondents agreed that the Chinese are

The conceptions of racial groupings have often been controversial for
scientific as well as social and political reasons. While the general
consensus favours a biological basis for such divisions, it is possible for
a Chinese to be genetically further apart from a fellow Chinese than a

Furthermore, the definitions of race have been fluid. For example, whilst
Arabs may be considered Malays in Malaysia, they would be Arabic in origin.

Take the path of most resistance
Race concepts have been reinforced throughout the colonial era and used as
powerful organising tools for western governments. In Rwanda, divisions
between the Tutsis and Hutus were non-existent until the arrival of the
Belgians, who started classifying them according to the size of their

Unlike ethnically Malay countries such as the Philippines and Indonesia
where races are not rigidly defined within the confines of religion, the
definition of Malay is uniquely enshrined in the Malaysian constitution as a
Muslim who speaks Malay and practices Malay customs.

Nevertheless, the term bumiputera has never been formally defined in any
official documents. The late Tunku Abdul Rahman in his answer to the
parliamentary debate of November 1965 stated that the term had no legal
meaning except to denote the natives of Malaya and the Borneo states,
Chinese and Indians who have been born locally for several generations, and
natives less able to compete with others.

He was eventually pressured to accept the definition which excluded all
Chinese and Indians, a concept used politically. Subsequently, the Malays
and bumiputeras possess special rights under the constitution. However, the
constitution is equivocal as to whether the rights are permanent or remedial
and transitional. It is also silent on the time frame. These are contentious
issues at the core of race relations in Malaysia.

Studies suggest a cultural basis for race where segregation stems from
perception and evolves through differences that are humanly defined.

When the Americans first arrived in Japan, they perceived the Japanese as
lazy. Probably there was no economic reason to be hard working in a then
slow-paced and isolated Japan. Today, the stereotypes pertaining to Japan
are anything but lazy. Similarly, any form of racial stereotypes should not
be accepted by Malaysians as a given but as a man-made construct or

Perhaps the way forward for racial integration is the path of most
resistance. Perhaps everyone should be compelled to learn the all the
languages of other races in schools to facilitate greater understanding
amongst races. This is not impossible if we look at countries such as
Switzerland where citizens are fluent in three official languages.

Also, education curricula should be revised to provide an impartial
perspective of subjects such as history. The original objectives of the New
Economic Policy (NEP) to help the needy regardless of race should be
strongly advocated and not manipulated to the whims and fancies of certain

We're suspicious of one another
The problem of racial strife is that of perception. Remedies suggested have
always involved major political changes which are beyond the reach of any
one individual. However, we need not be too ambitious and underestimate our
roles in the civil society. The fact is not so much that there exists
interracial animosity but that we are suspicious of one another.

This is partly because we did not have the opportunities to develop
friendships with people of other races at the personal level. Many are
brought up from a mono-racial background and attend vernacular schools.
Instead of defining ourselves against other races, we should endeavour to
place ourselves through the lenses of the other races and empathise with
their situation. The quid pro quo approach would be the first step to racial

For the non-Malay, would you be willing to sacrifice your special rights if
you were Malay? For the Malay, would you give up vernacular schools if you
were non-Malay?

It is argued that one cannot discuss racial issues without touching on the
ill-fated May 13 incident. Although politicians have taken the stance of
ignoring the big elephant in the room, perhaps the only way we can solve the
problem of interracial distrust and suspicion is by digging out and
examining old skeletons. The question is, are we willing to be objective or
do we continue to have a chip on our shoulder?


JOSHUA CHU and MOHAMMAD A HAMID anchored this session. Chu is an alumnus of
St John's College. Mohammad is an engineer by training, currently taking one
year off from work to pursue masters degree after 10 years in the industry.
Interests include voluntary work with young people and writing.

WILLIAM TAN edited this article. He is currently reading chemical
engineering. An arts and music enthusiast who plays the piano during his
leisure, Tan also takes interest in and discusses passionately about
economical, political and social issues pertaining to Malaysia.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Extraordinary moments from the ordinary

After over 3 months, our Merlins at Hotel Starship seem to have sorted out the cholingitis (inflammation/infection of the bile ducts) that Princess of the House has been battling with. In June, we checked into Hotel Starship for what we thought would be a short stay. We ended up with a 6-week hospital vacation, and a series of Percutaneous Transhepatic Cholangiogram (PTC).

A PTC is a surgical procedure where a sort of “x-ray” is done on the liver and the bile ducts. Imagine a plumber, going underneath your house to have a look at the pipes. Well, a PTC allows the Merlins at Starship to have a look at where the blockages are in Princess’ bile ducts.

During a PTC, our magician at Starship inserts a little needle into Princess’ liver and watches the needle on a special x-ray machine. A contrast is injected into the bile ducts, to see how the contrasting agent flows. The x-rays will tell whether the plumbing of the bile ducts is ok. Princess of the House has had a sort of odyssey with PTCs in the last few months.

The PTC she first had 3 months ago found a 5 cm narrowing in her bile ducts. So the plumbing exercises began. We had a magic maker Dave Duncan who dressed in surgical clothes looks almost as formidable as Dr House (except Dr Duncan is more dashing).

Dr Duncan was Princess of the House’s “plumber”. The first two “pipes” (rubber stent put in to stretch the bile ducts so bile can flow freely) didn’t do their job. A third stent did the job. Still, the stent had to stay inside, to stretch the stricture.

On Monday, our magician did his usual magic. Princess of the House was put to sleep after a 12-hour fast. He squirted some contrast to see how the ducts did, and was happy the stent did its job. Out came the stent.

This morning, just after 8am, a very on-time and exuberant Dr Ben Hope came with the happy news for us – we can go home - only after one night at Hotel Starship – unbelievable!

Seeking the extraordinary
Princess of the House is happy the stent is out. (She has had an “appendage” or a tube which has bee capped hanging out of her abdomen for ages). It means she can get back to the love of her life – her gymnastics; and perhaps swimming and her ballroom dancing. Maybe a season of touch rugby, depending on how her legs go (the pain in her leg is another saga of epic proportions).

We humans seek extraordinary events to reaffirm our existence. But it is in the ordinary things in everyday life that me and my house have come to appreciate these days. A simple meal cooked in our own kitchen; our own bed at home; our own bathroom; our own telly; and a transient stay of the beautiful maple leaves coming out in spring to grace our tree.

For those of you who have sent us prayers and wishes, came with food, books, toys and games for Princess of the House, our most humble thanks. And to the nurses at ward 25a, 26B, our liver nurses, the other magicians from the Gastro team - you all are very special! We are looking forward to more ordinary days!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Road to damnation – racial politics

I am anti anything drawn along racial lines. The more I think about it, the more toxic I think racial bias is. Asians (or should I say, the Chinese) are brought up to identify with the “superiority” of their culture. History tells us that the Chinese already considered themselves a superior civilisation while the West still lived in the dark ages.

It doesn’t take long to see how flawed the notion of race superiority is. I have been trying to shed my own ethnocentricity for years, but it is not easy. Being married to a pakeha (white) and having a half-Asian-half-pakeha (white) daughter, I am reminded daily of how my racial/ethnic background dictates how I live, view the world and think.

Being brought up in a small town, it was definitely difficult getting away from the great racial divide where schoolyard jokes like these are common: “If you meet a cobra and an Indian along the road, who do you kill first?” (Answer: The Indian, because he can be more potent than a cobra), or “why did the Jews spend 40 years wandering in the desert? (Answer: “Somebody lost a quarter!”).

Hubby tells me all the time that “you Chinese are the most racist lot on earth.” I protest every time, for the sheer dramatic effect that results. But I tend to agree with him.

Devils, devils
Growing up in Malaysia, I often wonder why in colloquial-speak, the Cantonese Chinese call the Indians kee-ling kwai or Indian devils; they call the Malays, Malai kwai – Malay devil; and the Anglo-Saxon hung-mo kwai (red haired devil). Naturally, everyone else is a devil but the Cantonese Chinese.

It is human nature to fear what we don’t understand. It is human to draw simple conclusions based on our immediate experiences. It is also human to make errors in judgments, until we are shown the light or choose to see otherwise.

I rarely encounter personal episodes of racism although I have lived in Canada for 5 years, and have been in NZ seen 1997. It must be because I don’t allow myself (anymore) to sink into that thought pattern of seeing me as a target for racial discrimination.

I was tickled by how NotPC’s blog readers got into verbal fistfights (this is based on a my interpretation of the trail of "conversations") on his blog on the subject of unsafe dairy products from China (original post from me). Somehow, the discussion took a tangent of its own based on a cheeky remark on racial stereotypes. Race debates can make people’s blood curdle, boil and erupt.

Growing up, I used to threaten mom, saying I will marry an Indian one day. Why not? I love Indian food, I love Indian music. Then, I used to threaten that I would marry a Malay. Why not? Malay men are gracious, gentle and dress better than most of the Chinese men I know. Mom would have loved for me to dutifully marry a Chinese.

I decided sometime ago that I would be against anything grouped along racial lines. Therefore, I am anti race-based parties (such as the Maori party in New Zealand). I am against Peter Low’s Asian Anti-Crime Group in Auckland (although I admire his effort to help others fight crime). Crime in Auckland is not confined to Asians. The solutions should not be addressed by Asians choosing to protect their own.

I hope in this lifetime, I would see the disintegration in my former homeland of all race-based political parties – the MCA (Malaysian Chinese Association), MIC (Malaysian Indian Congress) and UMNO (United Malay National Organisation).

I hope, in this lifetime, Malaysian politics will be defined by ideologies and aspirations, not by myopic concerns built along the colour of one’s skin.

May13 and the flat earth
Raja Petra Kamarudin, a Malaysian blogger(now in detention under the Internal Security Act) posted a blog about May 13, 1969 (parts 1, 2 and 3) a while ago. His version of how race riots erupted is one that I have heard years ago. May 13 happened when I was 7. Every Chinese family knows Dato Harun as a dirty name.

For the longest time, it wasn't wise to discuss May 13.

I never use to view my Malay friends through a different looking glass. Not until I was told Malays have privileges that I don’t. Then I saw how different I was to them, and felt differnt. In primary school, I had a best friend, who is Malay, called Zubaidah.

What has changed since May 13, 1969? Nothing. Racial tension is at very high voltages in Malaysia at the moment. There is a threat of outage.

But what has changed is the world is “flatter” today. Blogsphere has given the average Malaysian a voice he/she didn’t use to have.

Malaysians, I think, are sick and tired of being taken on a ride that leads to the heart of darkness -- it is a journey of perpetual hatred, suspicion, jealousy, and discrimination.

A sort of change is edging its way over the Malaysian landscape. It remains to be seen whether the Malays, Chinese and Indians can shed their narrow racial concerns to work towards a new social contract -- one that opens up real possibilities for national healing, and for redemption of the lost 40 years.

Princess of the House
By the way, Princess of the House and her friends participating in the Maori cultural group did sensationally well last Thursday. The kids at school had a sampling of the beauty of cultural diversity. Princess is now gearing up for a friend’s birthday party, and practicing a Chris Brown song on the piano. Tomorrow, we check into "Hotel" Starship for the surgeon to take a peek at the strictures in her bile duct/and how the stents are doing.