News on Thursday that a Swiss-owned brand of baby formula was being pulled from shop shelves in Shanghai following allegations that one of its mainland distributers had mixed the imported formula with out-of-date product came as a bombshell for mainland parents, already frustrated and angry after numerous food safety scandals.
Xile Lier, which distributes Hero Nutradefense infant formula in nearby Suzhou, Jiangsu province, was accused late last year by the city's quality inspection authorities of changing sell-by dates on packaging, mixing products and relabeling formula for older babies as more expensive milk for younger children.
Authorities ordered the distributor's production line stopped but the product continued to be sold in shops until last week.
An editorial carried by The Beijing News said the recall of 1.3 tonnes of Nutradefense came like "thunderbolt" to mainland parents, many of whom switched to foreign brands of baby formula on the assumption that they were safe after the melamine-tainted-milk scandal of September 2008. Domestic brands including Sanlu, Mengniu and Yili were found to have used the adulterated milk in their infant products. Six children died and more than 300,000 were made ill.
Official assurances that 99 per cent of baby formula is up to standard have failed to deter mainland mothers from buying foreign brands.
Some mothers, not satisfied with domestically produced foreign brands, pay a premium for infant formula produced overseas, such as Hero Nutradefense, which is made in the Netherlands. Others travel to Hong Kong, Europe and the US to make their purchases.
"Producing substandard baby formula not only deceives parents but puts young children at risk," The Beijing News said. "It's high time manufacturers were punished and consumers compensated."
Hero has denied wrongdoing, saying that neither Xile Lier nor any other Chinese company was authorised to repackage its product.
Other media outlets blamed food safety authorities for their role in the scandal. Suzhou's quality inspection authorities ordered Xile Lier's substitution operation closed in November after several customer complaints.
But four months later, a China Central Television broadcast revealed that sales of the product had not only continued but had actually increased, because the authorities had neither ordered a recall nor informed the public of the repackaging incident.
"Of course shameless businessmen must be criticised for endangering children's health, but we must also question the chaotic regulation of food quality, production and distribution," The Beijing Times said.
The Qianjiang Evening News asked why Suzhou's quality inspection authorities were unable to detect problems when the Suzhou Food Safety Office was in the same industrial park as Xile Lier's now-closed production line.
"The scandal was covered up for four months, so regulators shouldn't be surprised by the outcry," said Modern Express. "With no recall or publicising of the incident, where was the responsibility of authorities? Were poor Chinese mothers kept in the dark while sales increased? How could anyone not get emotional and angry about this?"
The Qianjiang Evening News said the dereliction of duty by food safety regulators was even more serious than the product tampering.
"The brand's harm to consumers is limited once they stop buying it, but regulators' dereliction of duty erodes public confidence in the whole market, and raises concerns for governance as a whole. For consumers, dereliction of duty is the nightmare that never ends."
The Oriental Morning Post said authorities owed the public an explanation.