Chinese parents continue to favor high-cost foreign infant formula, although they are not short of quality issues.

China rejected around 23 tons of faulty milk powder imports in September. A large portion was infant formula, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), the country’s consumer quality watchdog, said Tuesday.

“I saw the news on television. It’s only about iodine deficiency. It’s not a fatal problem,” said a woman surnamed Wang shopping in a local market in south China’s Guangzhou City. Wang, who said she had lost faith in domestic dairy brands for quality concerns, bought three cans of infant formula produced by Illinois-based Mead Johnson.

According to the AQSIQ, nearly 20 tons of Australia-imported infant formula was returned due to insufficient content of pantothenic acid. Shortage of this may cause indigestion and affect a baby’s immunity system. About three tons of New Zealand infant formula was rejected because of insufficient content of iodine or choline.

The faulty products added to the 270 tons of defected milk powder either returned or destroyed at Chinese customs from July 2011 to August 2012. Three quarters of the products were infant formula, according to AQSID data. The incidents follow a string of other similar quality issues. Chinese consumers used to find insects in U.S. Abbott-brand infant formula, while radiation traces were detected in baby milk powder by Meiji Co. because of the nuclear leakage in Japan’s March 11 earthquake.

Despite all this, foreign brands continue to take the lion’s share of the country’s baby formula market, as Chinese dairy producers are still feeling the effects of the 2008 melamine-tainted milk scandal. The incident killed at least six babies and left 300,000 ill across the country.

“I dare not bet on my baby’s health. I choose foreign brands because they make me feel assured,” said Jin Haiyan, a saleswoman at a supermarket in north China’s Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region. Jin used to feed her one-and-a-half-year-old son baby formula made by Yili, one of the country’s leading dairy producers based in Inner Mongolia. She has now switched to Abbott and Friso of the Netherlands, which is two to three times more expensive than local brands.

Wang Dingmian, an expert on dairy products, said no country can make a 100% guarantee on the safety of milk powder products due to the intricate production procedures. But most Chinese consumers choose foreign baby formula over home products because of their relatively stable quality.

Imported infant formula currently accounts for 70% of China’s baby formula market, said a report released late October by Guangdong-based CIConsulting, an industry research institution in the country.

The expansion of foreign brands has been accompanied by frequent price hikes due to strong demand — Chinese mothers are willing to buy anything as long as it is best for their “only child” under the country’s one-child policy.

“Many of my colleagues and friends are buying foreign-brand baby formula online or via purchasing agents,” said Huang Mei, a white-collar worker in Shanghai. She spends around 2,000 yuan (about 317 U.S. dollars) each month buying baby milk powder from Hong Kong.

At Shanghai customs, the average price for imported baby milk powder is less than 100 yuan per 900 grams. But 900-gram canned foreign baby formula in Chinese supermarkets is priced at nearly 300 yuan, said Cao Ming, deputy secretary of Shanghai Dairy Association.

Customs data showed that China’s milk powder imports rose 9.9% year-on-year to 528,000 tons in 2011. The total value of the imports surged 20.7% to 2.51 billion U.S. dollars during the period. New Zealand, Australia and Singapore were the country’s top three sources of milk powder imports last year.

For some Chinese mothers, the incidents of faulty foreign baby formula have to some extent changed their belief that the more expensive, the better the quality.

“Although I live in Inner Mongolia, the country’s largest dairy production base, I still don’t want to buy local milk powder because domestic producers have hurt consumer confidence,” said Ma Rong, a website editor in Inner Mongolia.

“Now that expensive foreign milk power products are also flawed, I wonder if there is any milk power that is safe enough to feed my one-year-old daughter,” Ma sighed.

Source: China.org.cn Nov 2012

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