Leadership hopes for image boost from tougher stance on milk firms

Tougher rules for formula makers may help domestic firms compete with foreign imports, still favoured after melamine scandal in 2008

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 22 June, 2013, 4:35am

Strict controls on baby formula makers trumpeted by the central government this week are designed to give domestic producers a better chance to compete with foreign imports, and may also boost the image of the nation's new leaders, analysts said.

The measures were set out in a document released by nine agencies, including the State Food and Drug Administration and the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology, on Thursday. They include:

  • Regulating baby formula makers the same way as drugmakers, using a strict production certification system;
  • Requiring manufacturers to report the ingredients used in baby formula to the food safety administration and give advance notice of any changes;
  • Using electronic tagging to ensure every phase of the production process can be traced;
  • Shutting down manufacturers unable to guarantee the quality of raw milk or whose production facilities and testing equipment are substandard;
  • Requiring foreign manufacturers to register with Beijing before exporting their products to the mainland; and
  • Prohibiting the importing of bulk milk powder to be repackaged into small packs for sale.

One of the goals of the measures is to boost the quality of mainland-produced baby formula after a string of scandals.

Mainland parents have yet to regain confidence in domestic brands since the deaths of six children in 2008 after drinking formula made using milk adulterated with melamine, an industrial chemical, to pass checks for minimum protein content. Another 300,000 infants fell ill.

Chen Lianfang , an analyst with Beijing Orient Agribusiness, said Premier Li Keqiang had emphasised production safety for baby formula and called for strict measures. "The measures are tough and not just on the surface," Chen said. "He seems to mean it. It's his time to show leadership."

Li told a State Council meeting last month that the safety of infant formula was a major economic and social issue.

Chen Junshi , a Chinese Academy of Engineering member at the National Centre for Food Safety Risk Assessment, saw politics behind at least one of the measurs - the application to formula makers of drug industry regulations. "These measures are not new. It has always been thus in regulating food [safety]. It's been done for political reasons."

Because of the high profit margin on baby formula and low confidence in domestic brands, many mainland companies repackage imported baby powder for sale or register a foreign address and label their products as imports. The New Zealand Baby Formula Export Association said in April that of 200 New Zealand products purportedly being sold on the mainland, only 20 came from the country.

Two years ago, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine raised the product quality threshold for manufacturers of baby formula and 475 firms were shut down as a result, food administration deputy director Teng Jiacai told a media briefing on Thursday.

The mainland now has 127 infant formula producers and they manufactured about 600,000 tonnes of the product last year.