Repercussions of China’s milk scandals are noticeable worldwide, from local shops in Amsterdam to large supermarkets in Hong Kong. In order to put a halt to excessive export of milk powder to the Mainland, the Hong Kong government has put an official limit to the amount of baby milk powder that travelers can take across the border. Offenders can get a penalty of up to two years in prison. Chinese officials and netizens have condemned the new law and plea for reversal. At the core of the issue we do not find Hong Kong’s customs, but China’s damaged reputation.
A few months ago I assisted a group of Chinese businessmen during their trip in the Netherlands. Once all their business matters were finalized, they had one final clear mission: buy Dutch milk powder. I knew about several food scandals involving milk powder in China, but I was surprised when I saw these men stacking up on packs of Nutricia’s Nutrilon at a local drugstore. The shopkeeper quickly notified me that Chinese nationals were only allowed to purchase three packs per person, and that she was required to make a copy of their passports at the cash register in order to prevent them from buying more milk powder at other store locations. “It’s a big problem,” the shopkeeper said: “The Chinese buy so much baby milk powder that we kept being out of stock.” Local shops and national chains in the Netherlands indicate that they have problems dealing with the aftermath of China’s milk scandal; since January this year some Dutch supermarkets have also put a milk powder purchase-limit in effect (Evmi 2013).
Since March 1st, the Hong Kong government has implemented a more rigorous measure; it is no longer allowed to take more than two cans of milk powder (1.8 kilograms) across the borders of the Special Administrative Region. The penalty for breaking this law: a fine of 500,000 Hong Kong dollar and up to two years in prison. On the first day of implementation, Hong Kong customs intercepted the illegal export of milk powder in ten different cases, involving 53 cans. As of March 5, 25 people have been detained for violating the purchase limit (Weibo 2013; Xinhua 2013). This stirred up a heated debate on Weibo. Commenters condemned the restriction and business magnet Pan Shiyi called on the Hong Kong government to rethink the new “evil law”. Chinese newsreader Xu Li expressed her concerns on the issue, and said the Hong Kong government could not be blamed for protecting the well-being of their citizens. “The milk-powder situation essentially is a problem of trust (…),” she writes on Weibo: “The mainland does have milk powder that meets the standards, but nobody trusts it- they are afraid to trust it” (Weibo 2013). Xu Li’s comment indicates that the problem of the import of milk powder should be looked at from a different angle. Instead of crying out against Hong Kong’s new restrictions, China’s government should think of a solution to guarantee the quality of nationally produced milk powder and work on its reputation.
The ‘Made in China’ crisis: an overview
The so-called ‘Made in China’ problem has been forming a serious problem for Chinese exports and its reputation as an upcoming global power since 2006, following the “pet food scare”. Chinese manufacturers got into a predicament after pets, from all over America and even in South Africa, died of renal failure after eating their products. Problems intensified in 2007 when authorities in New Zealand and the Philippines discovered that a wide range of imported Chinese products, from toothpaste to pajamas, contained high levels of formaldehyde (Cai et al 2009, 213-215). These incidents caused an overall growing distrust of products that were ‘made in China’; “(…) arguably the first time that allegations of product deficiencies were targeted at a country” [and not an organization] (ibid. 2009, 213). Before the milk scandal in 2008, Chinese citizens and the international community had thus already witnessed a string of issues concerning Chinese food and product safety. The contamination of baby milk with melamine, however, was the biggest scandal thus far. Amongst the infants and children that had been given tainted milk, over 250,000 cases of health problems were reported. 52,000 children were hospitalized, and six infants died (Pei et al 2011, 413). Manufacturers of dairy products purposely mixed melamine (an industrially synthesized chemical) with diluted raw milk to falsely increase its protein content (Chen 2009, 243). The scandal exposed the insufficiency of China’s tests on milk quality, and even revealed that some major Chinese dairy companies were exempted from official controls (Pei et al 2011, 413).
Why has the Chinese government failed to win back consumer trust since 2008? According to the article by Cai Peijian and co-authors (“Managing a Nation’s Image during Crisis”), this has to do with how Chinese authorities have dealt with these scandals since 2006. While authorities first took on a strategy of denial and persisted in the good quality of Chinese products, they later detained and executed guilty officials and revoked business licenses of the concerning manufacturers. These mixed signals increased general distrust of Chinese food and product quality (2009, 213-215). Since 2007, the Chinese government has promised to significantly improve consumers’ safety. Although the continuous improvement of China’s (dairy) products is a great priority for the government, winning back the trust of the people should also be a focal point of attention. Instead of making Hong Kong’s new restrictions the center of the debate, the focus should be shifted back to where it belongs; to the Chinese authorities, their guarantees on food safety and their clear communication to the people. It’s no use crying over spilt milk, but it is not too late to make a fresh start and repair the image of ‘made in China’.
Cai Peijian, Lee Ping Ting, Augustine Pang. 2009. “Managing a nation’s image during crisis: A study of the Chinese government’s image repair efforts in the “Made in China” controversy.” Public Relations Review 35: 213-218.
Chen Junshi. 2009. “A worldwide food safety concern in 2008—melamine-contaminated infant formula in China caused urinary tract stone in 290 000 children in China.” Chinese Medical Journal 122(3): 243-244.
Evmi. 2013. “Jumbo verkoopt melkpoeder ‘beperkt’ [Jumbo’s sales of milk powder are ‘limited’] (in Dutch). Evmi Voedingsmiddelenindustrie. Jan 17. http://evmi.nl/marketing-sales/jumbo-verkoopt-melkpoeder-beperkt/ (Accessed March 5, 2013).
Pei Xiaofang, Annuradha Tandon, Anton Alldrick, Liana Giorgi, Wei Huang, Ruijia Yang. 2011. “The China melamine milk scandal and its implications for food safety regulation.” Food Policy 36: 412-420.
Weibo. 2013. “#香港奶粉限购# [#Hong Kong limits the purchase of milk powder#] (In Chinese). Accessed March 7, 2013. http://huati.weibo.com/28793?from=525&order=time
Xinhua. 2013. “Tmall to sell imported milk powder online.” China Daily (March 5th). Accessed March 7, 2013. http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/cndy/2013-03/05/content_16276295.htm.
– BY MANYA KOETSE, follow on Twitter.