Chinese premier calls for action on baby milk

CHINA - Premier Li Keqiang called on Friday for enhanced supervision of the quality of baby formula to regain public trust in domestic dairy products.

Strict measures should be used to ensure the safety of baby milk, and all baby milk formula products should be retraceable through methods such as electronic coding, Li said.

The premier was speaking at an executive meeting of the State Council.

Li said the regulations covering baby formula should be as strict as those on medicine.

Dong Jinshi, a food safety expert and deputy director of the International Food Packaging Association, said, "Under the food regulations, it is mainly producers that are responsible for safety, but under the regulations covering medicine, both producers and sellers are held responsible."

He said Li's remarks reflect the central government's determination to supervise the dairy industry and rebuild its reputation.

Dong added that food safety issues are managed by several departments, which tend to shirk their responsibility when food safety scandals are exposed.

At the meeting, Li vowed to launch special campaigns to ensure the safety of milk products, supervise milk sources, standardize manufacturers and sellers of baby formula, and punish companies that do not meet the standard.

Domestic brands of high-quality milk powder should be built up to regain consumers' trust, Li said.

Domestic dairy industry sales slumped in 2008 after Sanlu Group was found to have adulterated its infant formula with melamine, a chemical compound used to make plastic. Six children died from drinking the milk, and at least 300,000 others became ill.

Li said the quality of dairy products for babies has improved in recent years after the government took a series of measures to enhance supervision. However, there are still many factors that can affect the quality of milk products.

Wang Dingmian, former chairman of the Guangdong Provincial Dairy Association, said foreign milk brands are expanding from China's high-end markets in big cities to smaller cities, making a revival for domestic brands even more difficult.

Domestic brands held about 70 per cent of market share before the Sanlu milk scandal. However, four major foreign brands accounted for almost half of the market share in China last year, Wang said.

Liu Nan, a 30-year-old mother working at a public relations company in Beijing, said she always buys imported milk powder for her 5-month-old baby, asking her colleagues who go to Hong Kong frequently for business trips to bring back milk powder.

"With the problems that keep occurring in our dairy industry, who dares to buy domestic milk powder for their baby?" she asked. "Most families have only one child, and they would rather spend more money buying imported milk."

To deal with growing demand from China, some countries, including Australia, New Zealand and Germany, have introduced quotas on milk powder purchases, according to the Shanghai Securities News.

Li said a regulation on online sales of baby milk products should be introduced as soon as possible, and the government will enhance supervision and regulation of imported milk powder.

It will put forward relevant policies to support standardized large dairy milk farms, encourage the merger and acquisition of milk powder companies, and promote the milk industry's development, Li said.

Gu Jicheng, secretary-general of the Dairy Association of China, said in May that the National Development and Reform Commission - the country's major economic policymaking body - is expected to allocate 1 billion yuan (S$201 million) this year to secure milk sources.

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