Wary of tainted milk, Chinese go for foreign options

Yiping Yang By Yiping Yang

Americans have been enjoying a drop in the normally high prices of milk products this year.

In China, the opposite is happening. Chinese dairy products are the now among the most expensive in the world. Behind the high prices stand neither supply shortages or demand increases. There’s plenty of domestic supply for milk products, and it’s even cheap.

But a series of scandals have made Chinese consumers suspicious of domestic supplies.

Two weeks ago, China’s dairy giant Inner Mongolia Yili recalled formula tainted with mercury, which can cause neural damage. The recall evoked memories of the 2008 scandal when six Chinese babies died before inspectors discovered that their milk was contaminated with the industrial chemical melamine. The deaths caused a nationwide panic.

Many Chinese parents now take every opportunity to obtain milk from foreign countries. They ask friends, relatives and colleagues to bring powdered milk back from their travels to Western countries. Some couples will even assess a country’s milk industry before they decide to travel.

Parents buy a box of Japanese milk powder at a store in Hong Kong (Reuters)

The demand for powdered milk in China has led other countries to erect barriers to sales of the product. In 2010, Dutch shops capped the amount of powdered milk customers could purchase, partly because of Chinese tourists. This year, a flood of Chinese milk buyers led New Zealand supermarkets to limit the amount customers could take home.

Chinese cities are also placing limits on powdered milk sales. Hong Kong is a hot city for Chinese milk seekers who cannot go abroad. Fights broke out in Hong Kong when shoppers were barred from buying as much milk as they wanted, said a report in Monsters and Critics.

Got app?

Food and pharmaceutical scandals have sparked innovation in China. A new iPhone app, the China Survival Guide, launched last month. It tracks thousands of food scandals around the country and sends warnings about products, especially dairy items, to users. The app was downloaded over 200,000 times in its first week.

China is also trying to change production habits. Last week, the country’s biggest maker of dairy products, Mengniu Dairy Co LTD, signed an agreement with Danish-Swedish dairy group Arla Foods. Arla will buy a six percent stake in the Chinese company, gaining a foothold in the world’s largest market while sharing its advanced technology. Mengniu gets advice on how to make better dairy products.

Will such efforts improve Chinese citizens’ attitude towards Chinese milk? Perhaps not. Mr. Zhu, a father of a two-year-old-girl, told the Chinese news site Zaobao that he doubted such cooperation would improve domestically produced milk. He still only trusts milk from foreign countries.

Straight to the Source

  • Jue

    The Chinese diary scandal certainly has ripple effect in the United States, especially in the communities with high concentration of Chinese. I recently wrote an article about how Chinese living in Los Angeles are emptying the baby formula shelves. You may check the article out at http://www.alhambrasource.org/news/chinese-rush-baby-formula-emptying-california-shelves

    • Yiping_Y

      Jue, thank you for your comment. I totally agree that communities with more Chinese are always in high demand of milk powder. And you did a great job in this article. I hope this milk panic buying situation can change soon and food safety scandals can less and less in the future. If you have any other good ideas related China and United States, feel free to contact us through our website, Twitter and Facebook.

  • Anna

    I think it also raises the issue of whether or not people are depending on a unreliable source of nutrition for their children at a huge cost…a tin of imported baby formula in the PRC runs 300RMB and lasts about 7-10 days. That’s a huge cost but it’s also not considered “modern” by many people’s standards nor convenient for those who can afford yue sao help or those who need grandparents to provide care so that both parents can work.
    I see larger cultural issues at play…but yes, safe food is paramount in any society…I’m going to check out that app…looks pretty cool!

  • Sjj198620

    I am also preparing to have a baby, but I am always worried about milk in China. I hate Chinese milk producer,they always benifits oriented and not care about our health, especially babies health. You know babies milk powder in China is also not very cheap considerated conumer’s income. But the quality is hard to say. We have no choice to choose milk from foreign countries. We would like a trust a totally new brand from foreign coutries rather than choose domestic milk.
    What a pity it is ?
    But we have no choice…
    Domestic milk producer is not customer and quality oriented, why we domistic milk oriented!