The American Interest
Analysis by Walter Russell Mead & Staff
Chinese Stock up on Australian Baby Formula

Western consumers have gotten used to seeing “made in China” printed on many of their daily purchases, but there are many items the Chinese themselves would prefer not to bear that label—baby food, for one:

A surge in sales of one of Australia’s most popular brands of infant formula has led to an unusual sight for this wealthy nation: barren shelves in the baby aisle and even rationing of baby food in some leading retail outlets.

But the run on formula is not the result of a local baby boom. Instead, it is being attributed to Chinese visitors, who are apparently concerned about domestic food safety standards and are believed to be buying in bulk and carrying it home.

The Chinese rush to buy Australian formula follows on several widely published food safety violations. In 2009, the Chinese government executed two milk manufactures for selling chemically tainted milk powder that lead to the deaths of six children, and in June 2012 the country’s largest milk maker had to recall six months’ worth of milk.

The baby formula failings reflect a broader trend in China: the difficulties in transitioning from low-cost/low-quality manufacturing to the more sophisticated, higher-tech manufacturing economy it needs to keep its growth miracle alive.

The hunger for safer Western food products also says volumes about the changing attitudes of the Chinese public. As the country becomes more prosperous, the people learn more and more about how the rest of the world lives and the kinds of protections they insist on from their governments and corporations. These new demands are already beginning to cause problems for the new leadership, which now needs to focus on meeting the rising expectation of the Chinese people. This is no easy task in a country as large and dynamic as China.

Published on January 10, 2013 12:30 pm