health

Six babies dead and tens of thousands sick: The other side of Australia's baby formula crisis.

This post contains mentions of infant loss and may be triggering for some readers.

In 2008, 54,000 babies in China were hospitalised because they’d been fed contaminated baby formula. Six babies died from kidney damage.

The culprit was found in tins of Sanlu baby formula that had been contaminated with melamine, a chemical compound used in plastic and fertiliser production.

Over 10 years later, the effects of the crisis can still be felt. Chinese parents have long-neglected domestic brands of baby formula and instead choose to pay $100 AUD and upwards for certain international brands on the grey market.

Meanwhile, thousands of kilometres away, parents in Australia stare in frustration at depleted supermarket shelves. Baby formula is flying off the shelves so quickly in Australia, supermarkets have had to introduce a two tin per customer rule.

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Host of Mamamia’s The Quicky podcast, Claire Murphy, remembers her own personal struggle trying to buy formula.

“I was so desperate that I went to the opening of a new supermarket because I knew there had to be some Bellamy’s on the shelf,” she says.

“Only to despair when I watched several men and women walk back and forth from the aisle to a trolley outside, cheating the two can at a time rule that was put in place to try and stop this exact practice.

“I cried and the checkout operator allowed me to take home three cans.”

The people who stockpile the formula to sell on the grey market are called ‘daigou.’ With around 80,000 in operation in Australia, it’s estimated they can make up to $100,000 from this practice.

They’re commonly international students, expats or tourists who personally export foreign goods before selling them on, using e-commerce platforms like Taobao and WeChat.  Baby formula is a particularly profitable product, but other Australian items like milk powder, vitamins, UGG boots and organic skincare also attract a hefty resell price.

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Thousands of babies suffered from kidney stones after being fed tainted milk powder. Image: Getty.

Beijing-based mum, Celine, was one of many parents who made sure to buy foreign baby formula when she gave birth to her first child in 2011, three years on from the scandal.

"Chinese mums, they were furious about the news about Sanlu,” explains Celine.

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“[When] I gave birth to my eldest son, I was really concerned about the quality issue, about the baby formula here in China and that's why I chose to purchase through daigou.”

SBS Asia correspondent Katrina Yu says the country has a history of these kinds of scandals, with a “national paranoia” around not just baby formula, but also other Chinese-made food and health products.

Just last year, 250,000 faulty rabies vaccines were given to Chinese children, fuelling even more distrust in the food and medical industries.

In 2015, Radio Free Asia reported that hundreds of children in China’s Henan province fell ill after being administered expired vaccines, with another case of unrefrigerated vaccines killing four children in Shanxi province in 2010, reports The Guardian.

China’s one child policy, which was still in operation up until October 2015, didn't help matters, says Katrina.

“[For] increasingly wealthy middle class parents in China, all they can think about is what can they do for their one child [and] offering their one child the best possible chance in life,” she says.

“It's something they really would fight tooth and nail for.”

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Daigou commonly find ways to get around the item limits supermarkets place on baby formula. Image: Getty.

While Celine staunchly fed her first son with daigou-purchased baby formula, her attitude began to shift after she had her second child in 2015.

“I did some research and I found that lots of the domestic brands, the Chinese brands, improved and they never wanted themselves to be any kind of scandal,” she said, explaining why she switched to a domestically-produced formula.

“It turns out… they’re very good.

“I have two babies now and I'm more mature than the other mums, who are probably new mums [and] tend to panic more.”

While cyclical reports of baby formula shortages still outrage Australian parents – and rightly so - Celine sums up the subject well:

"No matter whether you are Chinese, or [American, UK, or Australian], you're just a common mum and you want to feed your baby with very good quality milk.”

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