China food safety

Memories still too raw for Chinese parents to trust baby formula

Despite efforts of authorities to improve food safety, especially that of milk powder, after string of scandals consumers remain wary

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 January, 2018, 12:49pm

Ten years have passed since Fuyang farmer Zhang Linwei's four-month-old daughter died from drinking cheap infant formula. The powder he bought for just nine yuan (HK$11.30) a 400-gram bag at a city supermarket in Anhui left the baby puffy, with a big head and small mouth.

"When my baby was born, she cried loudly, but then her voice gradually became quieter," Zhang, 40, said. "I took her to a hospital in our town and the doctors there said they couldn't treat my baby and suggested I go to Fuyang Women and Children's Hospital. At the second hospital, doctors said they had received numerous similar cases and told me to have the baby formula we fed her examined."

Tests found that all the nutritional elements in the formula were far below the national standard, with the protein content just 0.16 per cent compared to the required level of 18 per cent.

"I think my daughter was starving to death," Zhang said.

In what became known as the "big-headed-doll" incident, a dozen babies died in Anhui after drinking substandard formula for months and hundreds more were malnourished, with cases also reported in other provinces.

The scandal dealt a devastating blow to public trust in the safety of mainland food - and especially its dairy products.

Things only got worse in the following years, with illicit practices and regulatory loopholes in the dairy industry culminating in the melamine-tainted milk scandal of 2008. Six babies died and more than 300,000 others suffered kidney problems after drinking formula adulterated with the industrial chemical melamine to boost protein readings for quality tests.

The central authorities have since vowed to ensure the safety of infant formula and the executives of big domestic dairy manufacturers have trumpeted the high quality of their products. However, most parents still ignore local brands and scramble for foreign ones or purchase milk powder overseas, prompting many foreign jurisdictions to limit the number of cans each customer can buy.

Premier Li Keqiang chaired a State Council meeting last month that discussed how to improve the quality of mainland-produced formula. A statement after the meeting said some factors affecting the quality of domestic formula remained to be dealt with and trust in domestic brands needed to be lifted.

A Ministry of Industry and Information Technology circular issued on June 4 said campaigns would be launched in the next couple of months to "improve the quality of baby formula and raise public trust". Besides quality inspections, dairy companies will make public pledges about their products' safety and ordinary people and the media will be invited to visit factories.

But many people remain unconvinced. Cathy Huo, a finance manager in Shanghai whose baby is due in January, said she had asked a classmate who lives in Canada and a relative in Britain to buy formula and send it to her.

"It's a lot of trouble, but it's worthwhile for my baby to drink safe milk," she said. "I don't trust the mainland government and mainland enterprises. Even if the domestic formula carries the 'qualified' label I would still put a question mark on its quality."

I don't trust the mainland government and mainland enterprises. Even if the domestic formula carries the 'qualified' label I would still put a question mark on its quality
Cathy Huo, a finance manager in Shanghai

Professor Wang Xichang , dean of the College of Food Science and Technology of Shanghai Ocean University, said public perceptions remained clouded by past dairy safety scandals. Last year infant formula made by a company based in Hunan was found to be contaminated with a carcinogen, and in April a trading firm in Suzhou that dealt in foreign formula was found to have mixed and sold expired milk powders.

"People turn to foreign formulas because they don't have other choices and they feel helpless," Wang said, adding that it would take a few more years for the public to regain confidence in domestic brands.

Shanghai Dairy Association deputy secretary Cao Mingshi said another reason behind the demand for foreign formula - although not the main one - was that the same brands were cheaper in Europe and North America than in China.

"No wonder the illegal business of trading baby formula from overseas to the mainland market has boomed remarkably," he said. "I heard that a Guangdong-based trader earned 100 million yuan last year."

Cao said the mainland dairy sector's sales had grown steadily since hitting their nadir in the wake of the 2008 melamine scandal, when "many people dared not buy any dairy products".

"What we enterprises can do is to make all efforts to ensure the high quality of our products," he said. "As time goes by, the public will trust us."

Each of the four baby formula producers in Shanghai has been assigned several quality assurance officials who will conduct spot checks every day. In future, Shanghai plans to regulate the baby formula sector in the same way as the drugs sector.

The State Council announced recently that it would screen out more unqualified makers of baby formula this year, following the closure of nearly half the dairy produce factories across the mainland in the past five years.

"In the first decade of this century, the dairy industry experienced sizzling and chaotic development on the mainland and regulation lagged seriously behind," Cao said. "At that time there could have been 15,000 big and small enterprises. The 'big-headed-doll' incident crystallised that mad development."

After his daughter's death, Zhang was offered 12,000 yuan in compensation by the owner of the supermarket. He has received 10,000 yuan so far. He and his wife have had two more children - a daughter, eight, and son, seven - but they avoided feeding them domestic formula.

"We spent half of our wages buying the foreign formula," he said. "Some of my neighbours' children who survived 10 years ago after also drinking lousy formula have suffered from abnormal mental development. My sole wish for my two children is that they can grow up healthily."