07/03/2013, 00.00
CHINA
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Children and families are the first victims of the powdered milk industry

For more than ten years, children have died from baby formula lacking in protein, as well as powdered milk tainted with carcinogenic additives or melamine. As underground imports from Hong Kong and Europe continue, foreign companies are accused of inflating prices. Wet nursing is making a comeback, even among adults, a practice that could be deemed sexual in nature.

Beijing (AsiaNews) - The impact of China's tainted milk scandals continues. More than half of local powdered milk and baby formula manufactures have gone out of business. At the same time, foreign brands like Nestle, Abbott, and Danone have come under investigation for possible anti-competitive practices, with prices pushed up by 30 per cent.

China's unbridled economic development of the past few years could not have been possible without women workers. This has created a market for baby formula and powder milk since many mothers have to stay away from their infant children for extended periods of time. In the first decade of this century, powdered milk sales reached record highs.

Eventually, even China's weak product safety and quality control bureaucracy unearthed widespread corruption in government ministries and uncovered food scandals with scores of victims.

The first case that broke out was in Anhui ten years ago, when it was discovered that the nutritional elements in baby formula were far below the national standard, with the protein content just 0.16 per cent compared to the required level of 18 per cent.

This literally meant that dozens of children who died succumbed to malnutrition with many others left with abnormal mental development.

Another scandal became prime time news in 2008, when melamine was found in baby formula as a fake protein booster. In all, six children died from drinking melamine-tainted formula and an additional 300,000 became sick, developing kidney stones and mental disorders.

Last year, infant formula made by a company based in Hunan was found to contain a carcinogen.

All this shattered public confidence in powdered milk products, and led to a rush for products from Europe and Hong Kong.

The government of the former British colony was forced to impose export limits on how much baby formula people could take out of territory, but in some cases, traders have been able to earn up to 100 million yuan (US$ 16 million) a year from this business.

In mainland China, Premier Li Keqiang last month chaired a State Council meeting to discuss ways to improve the quality of mainland-produced formula, and boost consumer confidence in domestic production.

Perhaps the investigation by China's National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) into Nestle, Abbott Laboratories, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Danone and Wyeth Nutrition for possible price-fixing behaviour and anti-competitive practices might be part of this campaign to help Chinese manufacturers.

Yet, despite a 30 per cent rise in prices for foreign baby formulas over the past five years, many Chinese believe that they are cheaper than those made in China.

In view of the situation, an increasing numbers of families, especially the rich, have been hiring wet nurses to provide their children with breast milk for its nutritional value. On average, in-house wet nurses can cost 15,000-20,000 yuan a month.

However, this might be generating new problems. In some cases, wet nurses might be providing milk to adults as well, a practice that may be seen as a form of sexual service.

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