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.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.