China’s obsession with imported infant milk formula is having ramifications for parents in Australia, writes Karen Tye from Melbourne.
Being pregnant with my first child has been a far from picture perfect experience. Aside from being away from family in Australia, there have been a lot of China-related obstacles that I have had to overcome that many Aussie mums-to-be wouldn’t normally face.
Most recently, many Chinese cities, especially Beijing, have been plagued by a shroud of oppressive smog, with “hazardous” PM 2.5 readings day after day. While Shanghai’s weather fared better, the air quality readings still hovered in the “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” range for most of the winter just past.
If it wasn’t the air then it was the food. Eating out in Shanghai was an immense challenge – despite checking with restaurants in advance about their non-smoking policies (some have non-smoking sections that are in just a large room divided into two by an invisible line), others didn’t enforce smoking restrictions at all so as not to offend their other patrons. Bars were totally ruled out for the same reason and then there was the café dilemma.
After being diagnosed with gestational diabetes, the only drink aside from water that I could have ordered was a hot chocolate with skinny milk. And since the melamine-spiked milk scandal in 2008, I’ve become even more fanatical about only drinking imported UHT milk, ruling out many cafes in China, including Starbucks, who all use fresh local milk.
I thought my return to Melbourne in my last month of pregnancy might help me forget these issues, however, much to my surprise, the food safety concerns of many Chinese people have now impacted families in Australia.
Specifically, many Aussie parents are increasingly anxious they can’t locate certain infant formula brands, namely the Karicare line of infant formula, because Chinese customers are buying them up in bulk to send them back to China, whether it be for relatives or friends, or as part of a newly-sprouted business to directly capitalize on such demand, such as selling through Chinese C2C site Taobao. In Glen Waverley, a predominately Asian suburb located in southeastern Victoria, there are businesses that now offer postal services that guarantee the delivery of six self-purchased infant formula cans to China at around A$60.
In China, a 900 gram can of Karicare Gold retails for up to RMB 220 (A$34) on online supermarket Yihaodian. In Australia, the maximum price of the same-sized can of Karicare Aptamil Gold in Australia at Woolworths is A$24.
Panny Jiang is a typical middle-class mother who works and lives in Shanghai. She said that she started introducing infant formula to her son’s diet when he was one and by the time he was one and a half years-old, his milk intake was totally reliant on infant formula.
“Many Chinese mothers think any imported brand is a good brand. When buying infant formula, I will consider imported brands first,” Jiang says. “Imported brands are really popular now because of the melamine-tainted infant formula scandal which happened a few years ago.”
Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that the scandal in 2008 wasn’t the first infant formula incident that China has witnessed. Just four years earlier, more than a dozen Chinese babies in Anhui province died from malnourishment after ingesting counterfeit baby formula.
According to Jiang, one of the most popular infant formula brands in China is Dumex. The company, which shares the same name, has key markets located in the Asian region. Dumex is a subsidiary of French multinational giant Danone, as is Nutricia, the manufacturer of the Karicare brand of infant formulas that are running off the shelves in Australia.
According to Bao Xiufei, who is Sales Director for East China at Wyeth Nutrition China, demand for high quality infant formula in China has soared over the past decade.
“In 2010, China’s infant formula market was worth US$6.7 billion, and with increasing urbanization and disposable incomes in China each year, there is only room for the market to expand,” he says.
“Every year, there are 18 million newborn babies in China, however it is estimated that there are over 70 million children up to the age of three,” he adds.
Wyeth’s line of infant formulas, which has the second largest slice of the market in China, includes fully imported Irish product Illuma, which retails for as much as RMB 400 (A$62) per 900 g can, as well as the S26 Gold range, which is around RMB 300 (A$46) per 900 g can. The S26 Gold range is manufactured in China although Wyeth uses imported raw materials. In Australia, the S26 Gold range can cost up to AU $26 per can.
In early January, Woolworths limited sales of all infant formula to four cans per transaction so as to ensure supply for their customers while Coles said it would not limit supply.
Andrew Wood, Pharmacist Manager of Terry White Chemist in Fountain Gate, Victoria, said that his pharmacy shelves have often been cleaned out by customers although like many pharmacies, he is unable to reorder a large amount of stock due to limited supplies from manufacturers.
“From what I know, Chinese customers are more trusting of a can of infant formula that is all in English than products with Chinese print, even if both cans are manufactured in the same country,” Wood says.
Since discovering I was pregnant, I started accumulating infant formula reserves for personal use in China by bringing one or two cans with me every time I returned back from Australia, motivated by the price of imported infant formula in China as well as by the quality of products available in China.
China has a way to go in regaining public trust in food safety and like many concerned and tentative mums in China who only want the best for their child, desperate times have called for desperate measures.
Nevertheless, in late 2012, state media reported that Beijing will speed up implementation of national food safety standards to safeguard the public, which will be set up by the end of 2015. According to the Ministry of Health, China has formulated more than 2000 national, 2900 industry and 1200 local standards related to food and additives. ■