What Is Wrong With Infant Formula in China?

Back in February, I came across an article in the food industry trade news, announcing that a petition had been lodged with President Obama(!?) to help alleviate the infant formula shortage in China. How embarrassing for the Chinese government, I couldn’t help thinking, that the country is having to ask arch enemy no.2 (no.1 being Japan) to keep its newest crop of citizens alive.

As anyone who watches the news knows, China is the land of the food safety scandal. The biggest incident concerning milk formula played out in 2008, when 300,000 babies got sick (and some died) because of melamine contaminated infant formula. Melamine is an industrial chemical that boosts the apparent protein of watered-down milk.

Adults consuming the occasional melamine-contaminated dairy product do not come to any harm, but for babies totally reliant on infant formula as their sole source of nutrition, plus an underdeveloped renal system to boot, the effects are disastrous, including long-term kidney damage.

The melamine scandal implicated Chinese and foreign baby food manufacturers alike – the adulteration practice was endemic throughout the country, which meant that pretty much everybody ended up buying at least some adulterated milk. Manufacturers’ quality tests checked the protein content, but not for the presence of melamine. Food adulterers, like hackers, are always a step ahead of safety protocols.

Chinese officials disposing of contaminated milk formula. [Photo Credit: Chinadivide.com]

Chinese officials disposing of contaminated milk formula. [Photo Credit: Chinadivide.com]

I wrote my MSc dissertation on food safety in China in the aftermath of the melamine crisis, and so my mind is still primed for news on this topic. The background to the ‘Obama milk formula petition’ story was that Hong Kong had placed a limit of two milk powder cans per person that could be taken back to the Chinese Mainland, in order prevent its store shelves from being perpetually stripped of the product. Any violators caught in the act could face a fine of up to U$64,500 and and two years in prison.

Then, a couple of months later in April, I read that Danone, the world’s number three manufacturer of milk formula (after Nestlé and Mead Johnson), asked UK supermarkets not let customers pass the checkout with any more than two units of its products, which include brands like Aptamil and Cow & Gate.

Danone said this at the time: “We understand that the increased demand is being fuelled by unofficial exports to China to satisfy the needs of parents who want Western brands for their babies. We do not export our powdered baby milk, which is made for UK babies, and labelled accordingly.”

UK babies obviously have quite different inner workings from Chinese ones…

Similar calls for purchase limits were made to retailers in Australia and elsewhere.

Chinese parents are not only reluctant to trust domestic milk formula brands, but also those of big foreign companies, like Nestlé, Danone etc, who choose to manufacture in China.  This is perfectly understandable; even assuming that these multinational giants have now tightened up their supply chain supervision to such an extent that willful adulteration no longer poses a threat (and they certainly have made tremendous efforts in that direction), Chinese consumers cannot be sure that a Nestlé labelled tin really contains a Nestlé product. Counterfeiting is rife in China, and is by no means limited to DVDs and Rolex watches.

Parents, who have relatives abroad kind enough to send them a regular supply, are very lucky indeed. Many see themselves forced to source foreign-made milk formula from a kind of ‘black market’, which charges anything upwards from a 100% premium on milk formula brands, whose Chinese-made versions are already expensive to buy. Remember, this is a country, where only a few years ago, several people were trampled to death in a stampede in a Carrefour supermarket running a promotion on cut-price cooking oil. Not iPads, but cooking oil.

You may well be asking the obvious question… why don’t Chinese mothers en masse opt for exclusive breastfeeding, if formula feed poses such a risk, on top of being hideously expensive? Sadly, many mothers fear that China’s food supply is so contaminated, they will pass on a cocktail of harmful toxins to their babies through their breast milk. They feel that the only guaranteed safe food for their offspring is foreign-made milk formula. It’s a desperate state of affairs indeed.

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15 thoughts on “What Is Wrong With Infant Formula in China?

  1. Leonor

    Thanks for this super interesting article, I had casually read about the milk crisis but I ignored the whole story. Now a stupid question: why Danone doesn’t export to China? Because they haven’t developed a formula adapted to Chinese babies? (btw, strangely enough formula milk composition is different almost in any country, even inside Europe. German infant milk is way greasier and higher in fat content than the Italian one, for example. Italian formula tastes better than the French one…and US formula is packed with vitamins and other stuff which make the milk difficult to digest for European babies….)
    And breastfeeding is not an option also because it’s rare to be able to sufficiently feed a child past 8-9 months (unless you are naturally gifted or live an extraordinary stress-free life)…

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Danone makes infant formula in China, and it wants to sell its product in that market. It’s a corporate strategy/supply chain issue. And yes, the nutritional content of infant formula is strictly regulated and differs from market to market.
      Funnily enough, in regards to what you’ve said about German infant formula being higher in fat than the Italian version, I remember reading that the same is true for ice cream. For Italy, formulations are higher in sugar and lower in fat, while for Germany it’s the other way around.

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      1. Leonor

        THanks for explaining the Danone thing, now I understand. As for the milk, at some point where I didn’t have much to do and started obsessing about infant food, I started to order organic baby formula in Germany. It sounded healthier, was cheaper and my German friends swore it was so much better than the Belgian one (made by the same producer, of course). My child couldn’t digest it! I still remember the veil of grease it would leave on the bottle…I later learned that not all the people of Europe were made the same regarding to milk digestion. Mediterranean are genetically worse equipped to digest milk (they often lack a sufficient quantity of the enzyme lactase) while Northern Europeans apparently have enough lactase in their system to explain the massive consumption of milchkaffee and cappuccinos after their meals…but that is another story maybe 🙂

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        All mammals (animal and human) can digest lactose, that’s how they are designed (unless there’s a genetic defect). What varies is adults’ capacity to digest lactose, because lactase (the enzyme that digests lactose) production drops off once we get older. Some stop producing altogether. And this varies from population to population, with Northern Europeans being highly tolerant of lactose in their diets. The Chinese (and other Asian populations) are 90% lactose intolerant as adults.
        There are also issues about the digestibility of certain proteins and fats in baby food. Some babies have an allergy to the milk protein casein, for instance.
        It’s a complex issue…

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  2. Bastet

    Similar problems have happened for years in Africa…but the mother’s were encouraged by their doctors to use formula rather than breast milk…they were given the Nestlè brand (furnished by the company to the doctors with a little money for their cooperation) of formula to start off with, which of course has to be mixed with water…but you see, clean water is difficult to come by in Africa and many babies died from disentary…I’ve never touched another Nestlè product since living in Africa. Maybe things have changed in 30 years…but making money destroying lives is my idea of bad.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      This is a well known problem in third world countries, and very controversial. A bit different from what’s happening in China, but no less serious…
      Sadly, not much has changed in Africa since re. what you’ve said 😦

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      1. Bastet

        😦 I guess I realized that the problem in China is different…and maybe even worse in a sense, there should have been the possibility of more control on the products in China, or one would have thought.

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        The government is trying to sort this out…. but they are up against a monster of their own making, a monster with has multiple heads. Their top priority is economic growth, everything else is relegated to second place. This means, for example, that they generally won’t police counterfeiting. Plus, they have too many people already, so they don’t care if a few of them die. It’s not a democracy, so they won’t be losing votes over a few dead babies. What motivates them, tough, is losing business. Big foreign business in particular.

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      3. Bastet

        When economy has priority over the welfare of the population, no gov. whether with or without democracy hesitates to turn a blind eye on some things that would be better to control…the only thing that counts is profit. We know something about that sort of stuff here in Italy and I’m pretty certain that the U.S. has it’s black spots too.

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  3. pollyheath

    I scanned the article you mentioned, so it’s interesting to hear a bit more about it. On a slight tangent, what was the major that produced that thesis?

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  4. americantaitai

    Thank you for posting about this disturbing topic. The infant formula scandal is infuriating, and really leaves families in China with no choice. How scary is it to think that you are buying something at the supermarket only to find out later that it isn’t what it claims to be. I personally think that China has severely tarnished it’s reputation in this regard. But really what other choice do families have in China? It’s so sad.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      It is 😦 I read an article a few days ago about the trouble big German companies have sending senior managers to China. Nobody wants to take their young family there.

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