China gets tough to remedy loss of faith in locally made milk powder

BEIJING - When her friends go on an overseas trip, Ms Cheng Hailin, who has a two-year-old daughter, asks them for a big favour.

Like many other Chinese parents these days, the 33-year-old teacher does not trust made-in-China infant formula. So she asks her friends to buy the milk powder from abroad

"It's very bothersome to have to trouble others," she told The Straits Times. "I really hope China can one day produce milk that's safe for our children."

The country's milk powder scandals not only cause distress to parents like Ms Cheng, but they also make many Chinese feel ashamed that the world's second largest economy cannot produce milk powder that is safe to consume.

This prompted Beijing to announce last week measures said to be the toughest yet to regulate production and lessen distrust of locally made milk powder. Five years ago, 300,000 infants fell ill and another six died after drinking tainted milk.

Under the plans announced by nine central ministries, parents may soon have to go to the pharmacy to buy milk powder.

The idea is to regulate the production and sales of infant milk formula, like it is being done for medicine.

At the same time, there will be tougher punishment for misbehaving producers, more checks and also "match-making" sessions to encourage dairy firms to merge. The hope is that bigger players that emerge after the consolidation of China's milk industry can better monitor their milk sources and reduce safety lapses.

While the measures are reassuring, observers say a lot depends on how well they are carried out.

Will the local authorities be able to implement these initiatives from the central government effectively, food safety expert Zhu Yi of the China Agricultural University wondered.

Also, regulating milk powder like drugs may not be a panacea for safety woes, she noted.

"We still see cases of fake medicines. It doesn't matter where you sell a product, if it doesn't meet safety standards, it is not safe," she told The Straits Times.

Dairy industry analyst Wang Dingmiao also has his doubts.

Bigger Chinese dairy firms do not necessarily mean safer milk, he told Sohu news portal.

After all, Sanlu, the company behind the 2008 milk scandal in which young children developed kidney problems after drinking milk laced with the chemical melamine, is a major enterprise.

Some also say the new rules are meant to protect Chinese dairy firms more than Chinese babies.

There are fears that foreign players would squeeze out homegrown ones. By last year, foreign brands like Dumex or Wyeth already made up half of the Chinese market, said an AC Nielsen survey. And this does not include milk bought directly from supermarkets outside China.

Observers say ultimately it may take years before the people can overcome their distrust.

"The Chinese people have a strong bias against locally made products. It will take time and effort to reverse that," food safety analyst Song Liang told The Straits Times.

Parents say they are willing to give locally made milk powder a second chance.

As Ms Cheng put it: "If there are local brands that we can trust, why would we want to buy from overseas?"

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