Botulism milk powder scandal
On August 3, 2013, the world's biggest diary exporter Fonterra said a bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, which can cause botulism and affects muscles, had contaminated 40 tonnes of its whey protein, most of which was sold to manufacturers to make their own products, including milk powder. A day later, China banned all milk powder imports from New Zealand. Hong Kong recalled 80,000 cans of Cow & Gate baby formula. Other companies that were affected include Shanghai Yanjiu; Dumex Baby Food, a Danone brand; Wahaha Health Food and Wahaha Import & Export; Coca-Cola (China) and Abbott.
Foreign milk brands still seen as superior years after China milk scandal
Many parents remain wary of local formula in the wake of the melamine scandal
In a large supermarket in Beijing's Chaoyang district, 38-year-old Max Meng studies the display packaging of a US brand of infant milk formula.
Having confirmed that the out-of-stock product was produced and packaged in the US, the IT engineer and father asks a saleswoman to call him when the product is restocked.
"I just want to make sure it was produced in the US; it's probably not the best time to buy New Zealand products," Meng said, alluding to the new food-safety scare involving recalled milk products by New Zealand dairy company Fonterra. He was shopping yesterday for his one-month-old son.
Asked whether he had considered cheaper domestic brands on the same shelf, Meng said: "No way am I choosing a domestic brand for my son. It's a trust issue."
Like Meng, many mainland parents still favour foreign brands, even though their records aren't spotless, as Fonterra proved when it announced that botulism-causing bacteria was found in some of its products.
Apparently unhappy with the increased popularity of foreign dairy products, Beijing launched an anti-trust probe in June and forced foreign brands to lower their prices. Meanwhile, authorities have also issued a detailed action plan to boost the mainland dairy industry this year.
But those efforts don't seem to be working on parents such as Meng. The out-of-stock formula that he wanted was the subject of a recall three years ago when samples were found to contain insect parts, but he said he was confident that the "production and quality inspection would be stricter after that incident".
He said he had no such confidence in domestic baby formula makers, which have been scrambling to reclaim lost business after confidence was shattered in 2008 when 26 dairy companies were found to have used melamine-contaminated raw milk to make the protein content appear higher than it was. At least six children died.
The scandal persisted when some melamine-tainted raw milk, which should have been destroyed, found its way back to the market.
"My daughter is eight months old and has been drinking baby formula brought back by friends or families who travelled abroad," said Zhang Xiuyan. "Wholly foreign made is better than joint ventures that manufacture in China, and those are still better than domestic brands.
"I don't trust domestic brands - not only because of … the scandal but how they handled it," Zhang said. "They tried to cover the whole thing up and were not transparent or trustworthy at all."
Not everyone agrees.
Xu Qiang, a 26-year-old father of a six-month-old, said he wasn't against buying domestic brand milk. "I believe the food safety has improved because there have not been any scandals for a long time," he said. Still, he bought a US brand of baby formula on his friend's recommendation.