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Why do so many people refuse to buy milk powder or baby formula from the Chinese mainland? Is it safe for me to use?

The Chinese mainland market for locally/nationally produced milk powder, infant formula and other milk-based dairy products was hit hard in 2008 by a scandal involving milk tainted with a substance called melamine. The market has been reeling ever since then.


The melamine incident

In 2008, it was revealed that milk products and baby formula produced by several diary companies on the mainland, including famous brands such as Yili, Mengniu and Nestle Qingdao, had been intentionally tainted with a toxic substance called melamine. Melamine is a chemical product that is often used to produce plastics and plastic coatings, textiles and papers, and is also used as an adhesive agent. It had been added to milk products by dairy manufacturers in order to increase the protein content of the milk and thus meet certain minimum standards set by the authorities. 

The contaminated milk and its derivative products, including milk powder and baby formula, were found to have caused kidney stones and other physical ailments in babies and children, with most victims being under three years old. Health minister Chen Zhu made an announcement about the discovery of the tainted milk on September 17, 2008; by September 27, around 64,000 children and infants were found to be suffering ill effects due to the contaminated batches, and four had died. 


Fallout from the scandal

Many companies recalled their products, and a number of parties found to be responsible were jailed; two were executed by the state. Nevertheless, the event caused a crisis of confidence in Chinese dairy produce.

Since then, many Chinese parents have chosen to buy milk powder from outside the Chinese mainland, if they can, or at least buy milk products that have been imported from other countries. And although some customers have returned to buying Chinese milk products, import companies are still doing a brisk business bringing in milk products.

In Hong Kong and Macao it is far from unusual to see mainland citizens buying milk powder and baby formula in bulk, to the extent that there were serious shortages in the regions. In 2011, the local governments for Hong Kong and Macau imposed regulations that stopped individuals buying more than one can of baby formula per day to ensure that there would be enough left for local parents.


Dangers of consuming food containing melamine 

Fully grown adults can expel most of the melamine they consume from their bodies, but for infants, long time consumption of food containing melamine may cause kidney stones, damage to reproductive capacity, bladder stones or even cancer. These dangers were exacerbated by children suffering severe malnutrition due to not taking in enough protein.

Since the scandal, stricter controls have been put in place, and so the chances of events like this striking the dairy industry again are remote. Nevertheless, the following are possible symptoms of melamine consumption; if your child exhibits such symptoms, seek medical attention immediately. Children’s hospitals, hospitals with pediatric departments and maternal and childcare service centers should be able to accept patients with potential melamine poisoning. 

  1. Excessive crying for no reason; this is aggravated when urinating.
  2. Other signs of painful urination.
  3. Vomiting.
  4. Blood, crystals, or unknown particles in urine.
  5. Kidney failure – may manifest as little or no urine.
  6. High blood pressure.
  7. Swelling hands, feet or face.
  8. Pain in kidneys when the baby is very gently tapped in that area.


Buying safe baby formula and milk powder

Some mainland-produced brands which were examined and proved to be free from melamine taint include Sanyuan (三元, pronounced sānyuán), Missun (明一, pronounced míngyī), Firmus (飞鹤, pronounced fēihè) and Wandashan (完达山, pronounced wándáshān). 

As mentioned above, milk production on the mainland is now under stricter controls, but if you are still concerned you can look for imported products in big supermarkets or international chain stores. If you are thinking of buying directly through import companies, such businesses can be found on Taobao who deal with this. However, make sure you examine and investigate sellers carefully, in order to ensure you are getting genuine items. 

You could also ask if your friends know of anyone who lives abroad or in Macao/HK and might be interested in (or already is) shipping baby formula into the mainland. 

If you are living in Hong Kong or Macau, you should be able to find well-known brands based in other countries, including Meiji (Japan), Mead Johnson (USA), Nutrilon (Netherlands), Friso (Netherlands) and Dumex (France). 


Useful Chinese words and phrases

牛奶 niúnǎi Milk
奶粉 nǎifěn Milk powder
婴儿配方奶粉 yīngér pèifāng nǎifěn Infant formula
酸奶 suānnǎi Yoghurt
奶制品 nǎizhìpǐn Milk products
三聚氰胺 sān jù qíng àn Melamine
进口产品 jìnkǒu chǎnpǐn Imported products


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2 Responses to Why do so many people refuse to buy milk powder or baby formula from the Chinese mainland? Is it safe for me to use?

  • Why yilli product not reached at malaysia…is it because the malaysian not want to use this…just asking thanks

    • Hi Zaiton – we don’t know, unfortunately. It could just be that Yilli aren’t interested in pursuing the Malaysian market at this time, and that no import companies have expressed an interest.

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