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.
Mamamia’s daily news podcast The Quicky will get you up to speed on what you need to know today…
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.
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.