More than two-thirds of consumers are wary of mainland brands of infant formula following the melamine-tainted-milk scandal three years ago, a survey by China Central Television found.
CCTV's Weekly Quality Report programme said on Sunday that 70 per cent of customers interviewed at supermarkets and baby product stores said they would prefer not to buy mainland-made formula. The shops sold more than 30 types of infant formula, CCTV reported, with 70 per cent imported.
The preference for foreign formula has seen mainlanders flock to Hong Kong and Macau in search of supplies, with the buying spree peaking around Lunar New Year, when many stores ran out of stock.
About half of mainland newborns are not breastfed, CCTV says.
The mainland consumed 560,000 tonnes of formula last year, with imports accounting for half. Before the melamine scandal, which saw six infants die and 300,000 fall ill with kidney damage, imports accounted for just a tiny proportion of the market.
There are more than 800 dairy manufacturers on the mainland, with 139 making infant formula. CCTV said 10 brands dominated.
Song Kungang, China Dairy Industry Association chairman, told CCTV that the mainland's production of infant formula fell 12 per cent last year, after several years of growth. Song said that at least a third of manufacturers would be forced to quit the industry.
Amendments to the Criminal Code passed by the National People's Congress Standing Committee on Friday increased the penalties for those guilty of food safety violations and made it easier for courts to sentence offenders to death.
Melamine, an industrial chemical used in plastics and glue, was added to substandard milk to boost its nitrogen content, allowing it to pass testing for protein levels.
A similar scandal has now been reported by mainland media: that albumin from leather has been added to milk to boost protein. Safety experts said the practice could result in heavy metal contamination.
The Beijing Times quoted the Ministry of Agriculture as saying that no albumin was detected in fresh milk supplies last year, but pointed out that the authorities only screened a third of production, leaving many consumers worried.
The Chenyuan Dairy in Jinhua, Zhejiang, was closed in 2009 for adding albumin to milk.
Fan Zhihong, a food safety professor at China Agricultural University, said deep-rooted problems needed to be addressed.
'Improving farmers' livelihoods to enable them to improve breeding and environmental protection would be more significant,' Fan said.
Dr Li Duo, from Zhejiang University's school of biosystems engineering and food science, called for stronger law enforcement.