Friday, February 13, 2009

Whither OMP?

In early 2007, the milk producer Mengniu (蒙牛) started selling a new, high-end milk product branded as Telunsu (特仑苏). It advertised it as containing a new additive OMP, or Osteoblast Milk Protein, which benefits bone growth in human body. It was hailed as a breakthrough.

On March 23, 2007, Fang Zhouzi wrote in a newspaper column that such a claim could not be valid. The term OMP appeared to be an invented name that did not exist in scientific literature. Even if such a protein existed, he said, it would not have any benefit as no proteins could survive the digestion process to affect bone growth in human bodies.

A month later, Fang Zhouzi learned from a patent application by Mengniu that the so-called OMP is most likely to be IGF-1, or Insulin-like Growth Factors, a well known protein. While IGF-1 exists naturally in milk products, it appeared that Mengniu is also using it as an additive to "enhance" the value of their product. Indeed, the Telunsu brand is selling at a much higher price than regular milk. However, milk with rich IGF-1 content could also impose health risk such as cancer.

As the Telunsu milk is steadily gaining market share in China, Fang Zhouzi's warning was ignored. For its part, Mengniu denies that OMP is IGF-1 but refuses to disclose its chemical composition. The company insists that it is a product of their own innovation.

It took almost two years. On February 11, 2009, the government finally issued an order to Mengniu to stop using the additive. The order stated that neither OMP nor IGF-1 has been approved as a food additive and their safety is not established.

Mengniu changes its story in an instant. It now claims that OMP is not IGF-1, but another well-known protein called MBP, or Milk Basic Protein. Ignoring its previous claim of its own innovation, the company now says that MBP has been widely used in Japan, America, and Europe for decades.

However, Fang Zhouzi insists that he has enough evidence that Mengniu's OMP is indeed IGF-1. Meanwhile, the Telunsu brand milk is being pulled from supermarkets in many major cities, although no formal recall has been issued. Mengniu's stock is also suffering major losses.

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