Mainland mothers need access to safe food at home

Kelly Yang says the mainland needs to regain the trust of mothers and that means ensuring the food they buy at home is safe to eat

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 20 March, 2013, 3:11am

I'm a new mum. Or, rather, an old mum. Two weeks ago, I gave birth to my third child. This time around, I knew exactly what to expect in the hospital - the sleepless nights, the endless beeping of machines and, most importantly, exactly when I can expect to go to the bathroom again. I was a veteran.

Still, there's always something fascinating and unexpected about hospitals. They are great incubators for stories.

In my ward, I met a young woman from Beijing who had come to deliver her first child, a boy. Before anybody gets mad, her husband is a Hong Kong resident. She also had the most undying determination to breastfeed of anyone I have met.

She nursed her son from the minute he was born, and even after her sore breasts began to bleed. It got to the point when, every time she brought him to her chest, her entire body winced in pain.

When I remarked on her admirable tenacity, she shook her head and said: "It's not tenacity, it's necessity." She said she needs to breastfeed because she's going back to Beijing soon and, there, no formula is safe. She admitted to having squirrelled away a few tins of imported milk powder when she found out she was pregnant - enough for an emergency, she said, but not enough for daily use. As I watched her squeeze out tiny drops of blood-tinged milk, I realised just how personal our city's restriction on milk powder sales is to her.

Despite her efforts, the small amount of breast milk she was producing was not enough to feed her son, whose weight was dropping. At her doctor's urging, she finally turned to formula. Yet she didn't give up. When the nurses showed her how to use a breast pump, her eyes lit up. Tears streamed down her face as she expressed her first ounce of milk.

Could that be it? Provide each new mainland mother with a breast pump - could the answer to our milk powder dilemma, and China's formula problem, be as simple as that?

Yes and no. Breast milk is without a doubt the best milk a baby can receive in its first year. Interestingly, according to the China Daily, one of the "better side effects" of the mainland's melamine formula scandal is that more mothers are opting to breastfeed their babies. Working mothers there also have more time to get accustomed to breastfeeding. Compared to Hong Kong, maternity leave on the mainland is longer, at least 14 weeks versus our 10.

However, breast milk is only as good as the food the mother eats. With cardboard-stuffed dumplings, toxic chicken and gutter oil prevalent on the mainland, one wonders how good a mother's milk can be, living there. When I pointed this out to the young woman from Beijing, her face fell for a second. Then, she shrugged and said, "Well, you can't win them all, can you?"

When it comes to food and safety, the answer needs to be "yes - we can win them all". It's the only way China is ever going to move forward. It's also the only way its citizens are ever going to stay put - have babies, buy formula and raise families - all in China.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.