Chinese Mothers Don’t Trust Domestic Infant Formula 10 Years After Food Safety Scandal
In 2008, more than 300,000 Chinese babies fell ill after drinking infant formula containing melamine. Today, parents remain cautious of using domestic formula, fearful that an outbreak could happen again.
According to a survey conducted by McKinsey & Co., more than half of new parents in China prefer a foreign brand of baby formula over local brands due to food safety concerns caused a decade ago.
The 2008 national disaster was caused by 22 formula companies who had purchased tainted milk from local farmers. Sanlu Group, a partner of New Zealand dairy company Fonterra, was the largest contributor to the scandal with 11 batches of milk powder containing melamine, a chemical typically found in plastic and fertilizer production.
Sanlu first received complaints from concerned parents in December 2007. However, it would take the company eight months to figure out what was causing infants to develop kidney stones, a condition rarely found in children.
The formula, which had previously passed numerous qualification tests, had not yet been checked for melamine. In August 2008, scientists discovered that a protein powder, used by local farmers to boost protein levels in their milk, contained high amounts of the chemical well above the tolerable daily intake.
Breaking in the midst of the 2008 Summer Olympics, Sanlu chose to keep the outbreak quiet, disclosing their findings only to local government officials and keeping the news out of the media to avoid negative publicity during the Olympics.
When Fonterra learned of the growing health issues, the company worked with the New Zealand government to present the information to China’s central government. The illness received global attention and addressed the problem parents had been concerned with for months.
Not long after the incident, China passed new laws regulating food additives and requiring a digital tracking system to display information about formula supply chains. However, the trust from the nation was already lost. Since that time, China has become America’s fourth largest export destination for milk powder.
China relies on U.S. whey, whole milk powder and skimmed milk powder, and recent tariffs put in place President Trump put on Chinese goods is putting a strain on that trading relationship.
As a result, milk price futures have declined significantly as the U.S. works through burdensome inventories of milk powder.