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'Jingoistic' Bias In Baby Formula Outrage Stories Unfair And Inaccurate

China's booming demand for Australian baby formula is "good for our country", the industry said, as manufacturers push back against constant media coverage alleging that foreigners are gobbling up local supplies.

Australian media regularly covers stories about baby formula shortages in supermarkets: sharing pictures of empty shelves, long checkout lines as people buy up multiple tins, and stockists implementing limits on the amount of product that can be bought at one time.

The stories are often linked to the 'daigou' trend -- where individual shoppers buy up products to send back to countries like China, often at large profit margins -- and laced with criticism that foreign parents are hogging vital formula while Australian families struggle to find the product they need.

Jieh-Yung Lo, a Chinese-Australian writer and commentator told 10 daily because of the baby formula hysteria he feels self-conscious buying formula for his daughter.

"I get these strange looks and people just watching me. So  now i feel I need to take my daughter with me to somehow prove its legitimate," he said.

Empty shelves show limits in a Sydney supermarket in 2015. Photo: Getty

Jan Carey, CEO of the Infant Nutrition Council, has come out to slam some media coverage around baby formula, claiming it has worried Australian parents.

She said the high demand for formula was good for Australian manufacturers, adding that local supply was secure -- and had dramatically expanded in recent years to meet booming demand.

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"Some of the criticism does have a jingoistic slant," Carey told 10 daily.

"Babies are equal, whether Chinese or Australian babies. It’s important to feed them."

Why Does China Want Australian Baby Formula?

While Australian companies like A2 and Aptamil do export directly to China, Demand for Australian baby formula began spiking in China after 2008, when a tainted milk scandal killed a handful of babies and left an estimated 300,000 seriously ill.

Milk powder had been laced with melanine, which is sometimes illegally added to milk products to increase protein content, and can be toxic or fatal.

Photo: Getty

The incident dealt a powerful blow to China's dairy industry, heavily denting public confidence in local products -- and turning Chinese parents off local baby formula.

Australian baby formula is recognised as being produced to high standards, and combined with its proximity to China and a booming number of Chinese visitors and international students, a surging demand for Australian products began.

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Photo: Getty

"What we are hearing... is that Chinese mothers want to feed their babies the same formula Australian mums are feeding their babies. They have more trust in the label that is English than Chinese," Carey said.

Lo said in addition to quality, stocking up on good is culturally common for mainland Chinese.

"They do that too in China, sweep the shelves and stock up for a rainy day," he said.

He said its important not to dismiss how this is perceived by Australians.

"I don't blame them for being angry and I understand why they are frustrated. It's mainly Chinese tourists or recent Chinese migrants doing this and they need to be educated that it's impolite and as a common courtesy they should stop," he said.

The daigou market includes dedicated stores that buy and sell Australian products like formula in bulk back to Chinese buyers, but it also features regular people buying products in small numbers for friends or family in China.

10 daily understands this often includes buyers video-calling their prospective buyers on Chinese social media service We Chat as they buy the formula, as proof that the product has been purchased in Australia.

Does Australia Have A Baby Formula Shortage?

In short, manufacturers say no. Despite media reports of empty shelves and product flying out of stores, leading brands say there is no danger of their stocks drying up.

Photo: Getty

"We guarantee our products are always available to order and we set aside Nutricia products for local families who are having difficulty finding any of our brands in store," a spokesperson for Danone, which manufactures brands including Karicare and Aptamil, told 10 daily.

Danone said it has doubled its baby formula production capacity in the last four years alone, as demand for the product explodes -- but admitted "some consumers in China prefer to source our Aptamil range directly from Australia or other overseas markets."

Photo: Getty

Carey said the burgeoning demand was "good for our country", and pushed back on claims that Australian families were being disadvantaged by the growing Chinese market.

"I think it’s terrible that fear and stress is created for families that rely on formula. That’s a terrible thing,. As a mother myself you don’t want to have any stress."

Will China Always Need Australian Baby Formula?

The Chinese government just last week laid out new "self-sufficiency" rules around formula, announcing a plan that 60 percent of formula in the country needed to be produced there. The government has also committed to higher production standards, looking to boost consumer confidence in local products.

Photo: Getty

It is unclear when this target is hoped to be achieved, but in 2018, local products made up just over 40 percent of the Chinese formula market.

Contact the author jbutler@networkten.com.au