Chinese mothers risk arrest for buying safe baby formula

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Article Highlights

  • One incident of substandard Chinese milk formula led to 6 deaths and 300,000 infants affected

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  • In the past year two Chinese companies have recalled baby formula containing high amounts of a fungal carcinogen

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  • Criminals are taking advantage of rising demand for milk formula by faking foreign milk formula labels

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Chinese mothers are risking arrest by illegally bringing bulk quantities of foreign infant milk formula into China from Hong Kong and further afield. The demand for foreign formula is so high that retailers in UK and other countries are rationing sales in order to prevent shortages.

In the past decade major problems with Chinese-made food and drugs has led to thousands of deaths, mostly in China itself, but many in rich countries too, including at least 150 deaths in the U.S. from counterfeits of the drug heparin. And while fake drugs are the largest concern for foreigners, within China the greatest fear is over milk formula. Sometimes contaminated with hormones and industrial chemicals, emergency rooms have routinely been inundated with parents and their newborns with nasty reactions to dangerous formula.

In 2008 the worst single incident led to 6 deaths and 300,000 infants affected. The Chinese company Sanlu had illegally added the chemical melamine to diluted milk products to falsely boost protein levels. While the company was sanctioned by the state, consumers had no standing to get redress in court. Comedians in Hong Kong joked that “Made in China” should come with a skull and crossbones warning.

But problems continue. In the past year three different Chinese companies, Mengniu, Ava Dairy and Yili group have run into problems. The first two recalled baby formula containing high amounts of aflatoxin, a fungal carcinogen probably introduced via the feed for cows. And Yili issued a recall of its formula due to high mercury contamination.

Yet Chinese mothers rarely breast feed, concerned that the quality of their breast milk is poor. And even with all the formula scares, which are increasingly covered in the Chinese press, breast feeding remains unpopular.

At baby showers in America, expectant mothers coo over cute onesies, baby sunglasses and cuddly toys, in China the most valued gift is imported milk formula. The shower participants will be eager to hear the provenance of the formula and how they may procure some. Attentive listeners hope to learn how to procure formula without alerting Chinese authorities, which frown on the practice.

The first port of call for most Chinese parents was Hong Kong. Massive demand in Hong Kong for imported formula led to unusual reactions from that bastion of free trade. Under pressure from Beijing, Hong Kong authorities prevented all customers from purchasing more than two cans of formula a day. Rule breakers face up to two years in prison and a $64,500 fine.

Chinese parents then turned attention to Japanese formula. Many Chinese have a relative who studies in Japan, and hence they have considerable opportunities for direct importation. But with the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011 rumors spread of radioactive contamination of many Japanese products. Most of these were unfounded, but to already concerned parents, they started to look further afield. This move was reinforced by heightening political tension between Japan and China, over sovereignty of several islands, meaning that Chinese officials became more likely to inspect personal imports from Japan.

The resulting demand outside of Asia therefore increased. Rather than allowing prices to rise, retailers in Australia and the UK followed Hong Kong’s lead, limiting the number of cans of formula sold to a customer within a single day. Chinese retailers are taking advantage. A can of powder typically costs about $23 in Europe and US, but sells for over $43 on Taobao, a popular online Chinese retailer.

But with many Chinese families only having one child, the consensus across China’s affluent urbanites appears to be that if there is only a tiny chance that Chinese formula is not safe, no parents want to take that risk.

The Chinese Government says it will act on the problem but with no details parents have not been calmed. And one drug investigator told me privately that criminals have started to take advantage by faking foreign milk formula labels. More infant deaths are likely in the future he predicts.

Until Chinese citizens have stronger rights to sue companies making fake and substandard products the situation is only likely to worsen.

Roger Bate is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Phake the deadly world of falsified and substandard medicines.

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