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a global trade in expensive white powder
March 14, 2013 2:38 AM   Subscribe

The Netherlands has of course long been a hub in the international illegal drugs trade, but the white powder currently being exported to China on such a scale that it leads to local shortages is not quite the powder you're thinking of: infant milk formula.

Because of the 2008 baby milk scandals, in which local Chinese companies turned out to have adulterated their formulas with melamine, wealthy Chinese parents have turned to buying foreign formula instead, through informal friends and family trading networks. The idea being that, as one commenter at Blood & Treasure put it, that by buying it off the shelves of a Dutch supermarket, you know it's trustworthy.

Which has led to Dutch supermarkets putting limits on the sale of (state subsidised) formula:
A Dutch supermarket manager in a large urban supermarket, who gave his last name as Bakker, knows all about Chinese food scandals. “Yes, of course we closely follow these developments,” he said. So far he decided against any signs. “That would be too discriminating. But we do want to protect our local customers. This is not about profit—our milk powder is subsidized by the Dutch government. It is about societal responsibility.” He understands the motivations of Chinese traders, but says Dutch sellers have been forced to these measures by “professional networks of Chinese extended families that systematically buy up supplies within a 10 km range.” While his store has noticed increased milk powder sales for years, the situation has become very noticeable in the second half of 2012, “possibly because the traders are becoming more organizationally sophisticated.”

Those who are just buying milk powder for personal use feel the stares too. They are concerned about how the signs, as well as negative coverage in local media, are affecting the image of Chinese immigrants in the Netherlands. “Those milk traders make us all lose face.” Online, Chinese-language users of the BBS forum Gogodutch.com—who appears to be citizens of the Netherlands–complain about “locusts buying 8 or 10 cans at a time.” Or: “I see them get their milk powder without paying attention to the sign and being stopped by the counter. They don’t understand Dutch or English and just stand there, insisting on the purchase. It is so f*cking embarrassing.” Others point out that trading subsidized milk powder (average price of 90 yuan/tin) bought from Dutch supermarkets is equivalent to tax evasion at the cost of Dutch babies. The webmaster repeatedly tries to bring down the temperature of the discussion: “I understand that those who are not selling milk powder feel frustrated to meet with underserved discrimination. … Complaining is ok, but please don’t personally attack people. I don’t have the time to go through every message. Thanks for your cooperation!”
Breastfeeding meanwhile, thanks to both marketing and societal pressures, is largely discouraged in China, despite the advantages it has over formula.
posted by MartinWisse (61 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
7% breastfeeding in rural areas? 1% urban?

God damn.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:48 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I know a Chinese student in my department who's wife back in China has just had their first child. When he goes back to visit it's with a case full of baby milk powder every trip.
posted by pharm at 2:58 AM on March 14, 2013


God it's such a fucking disgrace. Those formula companies should be drawn and quartered. The pseudo-science shit in their ads over here drive me up the wall - and it's a double-edged sword, as well, as some mother friends of mine who ended up using formula for different, legitimate reasons, ended up feeling so judged and shamed for something that really wasn't much of a choice for them.

I don't know what the answer is - prescription only? But doctors are themselves hardly immune from the pressure of marketing, and that brings in more shaming, as well.

This piece also highlights issues around the global supply chain. Surely it would be cheaper - subsidy or no - for nestle et al, to sell their formula direct in China, even if it was imported in bulk? It represent a failure of the Chinese regulatory bodies - living large off fraud and counterfeiting for so long ; a failure of the multinationals to secure their supply chains and legitimately sell their stuff and more. Failure all round, really.
posted by smoke at 3:00 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd not thought the breastfeeding situation was quite so dire as presented in the Xinhua article, and a search brought up this journal article that seems to confirm that (though still a long way from the ideal).
I can't see any quick route back to re-establishing public trust in food safety - as I recall the scandal at the time it went through several phases of false assurances that only added to the general understanding that you can't trust sellers or oversight agencies.
posted by Abiezer at 3:13 AM on March 14, 2013


Breastfeeding also requires either: one parent not to work OR regular access to breast pumps, refrigeration, & sterile bottles and nipples. This may not be possible in many parts of China.
posted by leotrotsky at 3:30 AM on March 14, 2013 [12 favorites]


im surprised they havent just gone back to fresh cow's milk for infants, and started them on iron-rich foods at 4-6months. (powder *is* cows milk plus iron)

its interesting to learn of yet another chinese food fad, in contrast with the not-so-recent shark fin or rhino horn meals of millennia passed....
posted by dongolier at 3:45 AM on March 14, 2013


I understand the Chinese Government is building the world's largest breast in Wuhan, so that all of China may suckle at its munificent, state-sanctioned nipple.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 3:46 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Just outside Boston I noticed a locked cabinet in a grocery store, there's a small pharmacy but it wasn't the supplies for meth labs (pseudoephedrine) but baby formula. Seemed odd at the time.
posted by sammyo at 3:48 AM on March 14, 2013


im surprised they havent just gone back to fresh cow's milk for infants
The adulteration happened to the milk on-farm (melamine added to feed) rather than during the processing into infant formula, as I recall, so I can see why that's not thought an option.
posted by Abiezer at 3:49 AM on March 14, 2013


Yep, this has been a really big problem in Hong Kong for a while, during this past Chinese New Year it got to the point where they were buying out the entire stock of a lot of markets and pharmacies and local mothers were not able to purchase enough for their children. Customs has now restricted all visiting mainland Chinese to two cans of formula per adult per trip.

Also, interesting that even in the Dutch forums they use the word "locust," which is also the word of choice for Hong Kong locals when they are describing the waves of mainland Chinese tourists and expatriates (would that even be the right word to use in this case?) here...I wouldn't be surprised if Hong Kong first popularized the term.
posted by C^3 at 3:52 AM on March 14, 2013


Here's what I found in Wikipedia:

> A boycott was launched... against the Swiss-based Nestlé corporation. It was prompted by concern about Nestle's "aggressive marketing" of breast milk substitutes (infant formula), particularly in less economically developed countries (LEDCs), which campaigners claim contributes to the unnecessary suffering and deaths of babies, largely among the poor.

If it sounds not quite accurate in regards to current events, it's because that boycott was in 1977. Foisting baby formula on people who don't know better has been going on for a long time.
posted by ardgedee at 3:57 AM on March 14, 2013


If any conservatives here in the US want to examine the benefits of little to no regulation of consumer goods they can look no further than China. (Yes, I know China has regulations, but an effective regulatory scheme takes both strong regulations and strong enforcement).
posted by caddis at 3:59 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


The adulteration happened to the milk on-farm (melamine added to feed) rather than during the processing into infant formula

no, the wikipedia article implies the dehydrated milk was cut with "protein powder" consisting of melamine and maldodextrin (sugar).

it seems likely that china has food contamination across the board, but its interesting to me that infant formula was singled out when the two main criminal players were in fact put to death by the state and officially there were no other sources.

caddis: its also interesting that the melamine whistleblower (and saver of babies!) was himself murdered.
posted by dongolier at 4:01 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


no, the wikipedia article implies the dehydrated milk was cut with "protein powder" consisting of melamine and maldodextrin (sugar).
Just had a read and the implication is still that this happened to the milk on-farm though, and there's other stories (e.g.) that note it being added to feed. Whatever the truth, my point is mainly that people don't trust milk either, with legitimate grounds.
posted by Abiezer at 4:10 AM on March 14, 2013


Generally people in this region (and others, I'm guessing) don't trust food in general that comes out of mainland China. If you have two similar products sitting on a shelf, but one is made in China and one isn't, Hong Kong consumers will almost always purchase the non-Chinese ones. They'll start to consider Chinese products once you get to about a 25-33% discount (spitballing).

This applies equally across all food groups, from produce to meat to processed snackfoods. The only exception I can think of is tea leaves.
posted by C^3 at 4:18 AM on March 14, 2013


Just outside Boston I noticed a locked cabinet in a grocery store, there's a small pharmacy but it wasn't the supplies for meth labs (pseudoephedrine) but baby formula. Seemed odd at the time.

Putting baby formula in locked glass cases by the cash registers is standard practice in Toronto's No-Frills grocery stores. I find it hard to believe people would steal formula to sell it, and it hurts me to think of people having to steal to feed their babies.
posted by orange swan at 4:47 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


I find it hard to believe people would steal formula to sell it

If it's expensive and in-demand enough to be locked up people will absolutely steal it. The reason they steal it is still because there are people who can't really afford formula to feed their babies and buying it at a discount from thieves is their only option. This still sucks because 1) I am against stealing 2) it means people are feeding their babies potentially unregulated products of unguaranteed provenance 3) it's abhorrent that people need to resort to the black market to feed babies.
posted by Mrs. Pterodactyl at 4:54 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


by buying it off the shelves of a Dutch supermarket, you know it's trustworthy.

As long as it isn't a meat product.

If any conservatives here in the US want to examine the benefits of little to no regulation of consumer goods they can look no further than China.

And if lefties in the US want to examine the benefits of strict government regulation, they need look no further than China.

The problem is not regulation of food, but China's regulation of information. As soon as the Chinese people were allowed to know that baby formula was tainted, the stopped using it.

No amount of regulation is going to stop people from adultering the food supply - indeed strict government regulation seems to create private economic incentives to do just the opposite - but such regulation does seem terribly effective in silencing the media so people don't know about it.
posted by three blind mice at 5:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


im surprised they havent just gone back to fresh cow's milk for infants

The vast majority of Chinese are lactose intolerant.
posted by Wolof at 5:23 AM on March 14, 2013


[Please fight the impulse to make this a conversation about US conservative/liberal/libertarian policy. Thanks.]
posted by taz at 5:45 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


The vast majority of Chinese are lactose intolerant.

I'm not sure what this has to do with anything.

Human breastmilk is full of lactose, and barring very rare genetic disorders, babies are born able to digest it. It is only later in life (after being weaned from breastfeeding) that humans stop producing the enzyme required to digest lactose. Outside of very rare circumstances, when people talk about being lactose intolerant, they are not saying that they were literally born unable to digest lactose. They're simply saying that they're among the population of people for whom the ability to digest lactose ceased after early childhood.

Different ethnic groups have differing rates of the mutation that allows them to continue to digest lactose into adulthood, and so it may be that the Chinese have a lower rate of post-childhood lactose tolerance. However, that has no bearing on the ability to use cow's milk as a substitute for breastfeeding or formula.
posted by tocts at 5:50 AM on March 14, 2013 [9 favorites]


"And if lefties in the US want to examine the benefits of strict government regulation, they need look no further than China."

Oh ffs.
posted by bardic at 5:54 AM on March 14, 2013


"As soon as the Chinese people were allowed to know that baby formula was tainted, the stopped using it."

Yes, Chinese people don't willingly feed poison to their babies.

And in information-loving Western Europe a whole bunch of people didn't just eat horse meat by accident.
posted by bardic at 6:01 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


three blind mice: As soon as the Chinese people were allowed to know that baby formula was tainted, the stopped using it.
The article points out that:
According to official figures, pricey foreign brands currently account for 60% of the Chinese [infant formula] market...
Even if the amount of Chinese-origin baby formula actually being used in China is just 10% of the total market, it's a vast market and 10% of it would be a huge amount of formula in absolute terms. I don't see how you can conclude that "they stopped using it" from anything in this article.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:03 AM on March 14, 2013


However, that has no bearing on the ability to use cow's milk as a substitute for breastfeeding or formula.

Well, tried this on my Chinese baby, because she was suffering obvious abdominal discomfort and excessive wind which went away after we stopped giving her cows' milk. Formula is goddam expensive. But yeah, no bearing at all, because science.
posted by Wolof at 6:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Foisting baby formula on people who don't know better has been going on for a long time.

This is pretty condescending and offensive. People in poor countries aren't capable of making the same calculations about what to feed their babies as people in rich countries? It's not like people in rich countries were never told feeding babies formula was better. Now that we 'know better' we like to excoriate those who followed that advice, but apparently not if they live in a poor country, as they apparently have no agency.
posted by hoyland at 6:07 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


hoyland, I think it's pretty safe to say that the people in rich countries who were convinced that powdered formula was the safe, clean, modern, prosperous thing to use were also fooled. The fooling has been time-shifted for developing nations, but we all know that American families were fooled in the same way starting in the 1950s that African and Asian families are being fooled today. That's mostly an indictment of the corporations doing the fooling, not of the victims.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:16 AM on March 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Just outside Boston I noticed a locked cabinet in a grocery store, there's a small pharmacy but it wasn't the supplies for meth labs (pseudoephedrine) but baby formula. Seemed odd at the time.

Someone linked to a really distressing article a couple years ago, about the long lines of people in 24-hour Walmarts, buying baby formula at midnight on Government Assistance Pay Day. It begged the question of how long the children of those folks had gone without formula in the previous month if their parents were so desperate to get it. Want for formula is not a uniquely Chinese problem.

My kid breastfed, but we used formula to supplement occasionally because it was much easier to go out with powder that didn't need to be refrigerated than bottles of my wife's milk. And it's obnoxiously expensive for what it is.

I've never stolen anything in my life, but I would have absolutely tried to boost formula if my daughter needed it and I was destitute. I'm guessing that a lot of formula is stolen by a desperate parent.
posted by Mayor Curley at 6:19 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


it hurts me to think of people having to steal to feed their babies

I'm not sure that the thieves are the ones with babies to feed. It's probably similar to the Tide detergent problem: it's a product much in demand, relatively expensive but that's easy to steal with little risk and low penalties.

I've noticed the informal trade of baby formula in Vietnam too, after seeing Vietnamese expats packing cans of formula (but only of certain brands!) in their luggage before going home. It didn't make sense to me at the time and the offered explanation was that the locally available products were crap. Particularly, Chinese products have a bad reputation compared to European ones. Nutella, cookies and detergent are also part of this extended-family-and-friends trade route.
posted by elgilito at 6:23 AM on March 14, 2013


A new food safety law and central government statements claiming that 99% of Chinese dairy products are safe have been unable to restore consumer trust.

Really? That's very surprising. I wonder if the way in which the central government responds to crises might have something to do with it.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2013


hoyland, here is (part of) the story on formula in developing nations. Poor women with babies (most of whom work at home/on farms) were, historically, breastfeeding. In order to capture that market, Nestle started aggressive formula advertising. Often it was marketed as safer/more scientific than "inadequate" mother's milk (the same tack that was taken here in the West), or simply as something richer people do, making it aspirational.

There was also the side benefit of being able to leave babies with babysitters/siblings earlier (as breast pumping and refrigeration are uncommon/unknown) if you have formula, allowing women to do more work. And breastfeeding itself is often no picnic, as most women who've done it will tell you.

The problem is, water in those countries...which you need to mix the formula...is often not safe. A second problem is, once a woman starts/is pressured into using formula, her own milk dries up, so even if the water is contaminated, she has no other way to feed her child. A third problem is that formula is of course more expensive than breastfeeding, so now she and her family are even poorer. With the result that people water down the formula to make it last longer, and babies are malnourished/starve to death.

It's not about Poors are Stupid, it's about unforeseen consequences they could not have known about. But (per the boycotts) Nestle should have.

And it's complicated by the fact that if there are pollutants in the water anyway, well, those might also cross to the baby through the breastmilk.
posted by emjaybee at 6:39 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


hoyland: Now that we 'know better' we like to excoriate those who followed that advice...
I read ardgedee's comment as excoriating the formula makers, not the parents.
hoyland: People in poor countries aren't capable of making the same calculations about what to feed their babies as people in rich countries?
Poor, often-illiterate people mostly don't have the luxury of choosing how to spend their time, of choosing to spend it studying the nuances of any particular issue in depth for themselves. If you were truly poor, neither would you. If I were truly poor, neither would I. If you want to characterize that as a lack of agency, you may; it's monumentally unpleasant but it's functionally accurate. Money is power. Poverty is the opposite. The poor are always the ones who get ripped-off the most, conned the most, the ones who get the worst deals again and again.
posted by Western Infidels at 6:42 AM on March 14, 2013 [6 favorites]


Food adulteration is a concern for EVERYONE. You can see the issue rising here in the US with honey laundering, as an example. However, there are places where it is much more of an everyday issue than others, such as, China. If I was a Chinese parent on the mainland you bet your sweet ass I would be pulling every connection possible to get safe formula because not only is there a social onus but quite frankly a social economic one where each parent has to work. You think it is bad trying to be a breastfeeding mom in the US? Try the fact that a decent breast-pump is pushing $200 and you need space, time and privacy to do this. Being a female migrant worker is not going to work with that.

Separate the sinful past of Nestle from the present sins of food adulteration fears. Nestle's past sins do not absolve the present issues haunting China's food regulations and safeguards. Don't think the Chinese government hoped to tamp down the media about the milk adulteration. It became too big of an issue before all communication avenues could be tamped down and they had to ride that tiger to the execution of two people. The Chinese consumer is rightful to be wary in a hostile environment.
posted by jadepearl at 6:48 AM on March 14, 2013


Oh man, I didn't realize this problem had spread so far away. It's been something that routinely makes headlines here in Hong Kong . Honestly, I thought about going to CostCo when I was back in the US to buy some baby milk formula in bulk then reselling it for a pretty nice sum here...
posted by astapasta24 at 7:07 AM on March 14, 2013


one small point - not everyone is physically able to breastfeed, for one reason or another - sometimes it just doesn't work - sometimes there's an early medical problem requiring hospitalization which makes formula more practical than breastfeeding for awhile - but then when the kid is able to go back, he/she doesn't want the breast or his/her mother isn't capable anymore

so formula isn't always an bad choice

also, i should point out in the US, we have a WIC program that will pay for formula and other stipends for infants and the eligibility requirements are not that stringent

another thing to consider - baby formula is often used to cut drugs such as cocaine and heroin in the US, which might explain them being under lock and key in some areas
posted by pyramid termite at 7:13 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


The real problem with baby milk formula is how difficult it is to make. Have you every tried milking a baby? You can pinch an eight month-old's nipples for hours, but still get nothing. Then Social Services come around and, yada yada yada, back to prison for ol' quidnunc. It is a complete waste of effort if you ask me.
posted by the quidnunc kid at 7:14 AM on March 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


Poor, often-illiterate people mostly don't have the luxury of choosing how to spend their time, of choosing to spend it studying the nuances of any particular issue in depth for themselves. If you were truly poor, neither would you. If I were truly poor, neither would I. If you want to characterize that as a lack of agency, you may; it's monumentally unpleasant but it's functionally accurate.

That's kind of my point. It's not that they "don't know any better", it's that they've made the best decision they can with their resources (be the constrained resource information or the requisite stuff for breast-feeding in their particular lives), same as people who use formula in the US. But because they're in the US, we call them bad mothers. Calling them either stupid or bad mothers is bad, obviously. They're almost certainly making a decision that makes sense in their lives.
posted by hoyland at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Given the high visibility of the baby formula issue, I'd bet that right now Chinese-manufactured formula is among the safest and purest in the world--when these things become known, the Chinese government responds with tremendous force to correct the problem, usually over-compensating for the original flaws in safety standards and enforcement.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:15 AM on March 14, 2013


Baby formula is not the same as "cow's milk powder plus iron." The nutrient balance in straight cow's milk is entirely wrong for human infants; formula addresses this to a degree by separating cow's milk into its key constituent parts (whey, fat, carbs, minerals, water) and remixing them to vaguely approximate the ratios in human breastmilk.

Babies under the age of 6 months or so are not even capable of fully digesting unprocessed cow's milk, and in many babies cow's milk causes not only severe nutrient deficiencies but also dehydration and stomach bleeding.

Feeding a newborn infant a diet of straight cow's milk could kill that infant, if the child is for whatever reason particularly unable to cope with the side effects. It will at the very least make the kid sickly and cranky. No one should ever, ever feed their infant straight-up milk powder.

Before formula was invented, if a mother for some reason could not nurse a baby, she found a wet nurse, she tried her best to mix up an inadequate but survivable diet based on a few home grown formula recipes that had proved successful, or the baby died. Full stop. Straight-up cow's milk has never been a reasonable option, because human babies are not cows.

(This is not, by the way, intended as an endorsement of giant formula companies, their lies about formula's superiority to breastmilk, or their relentless promotion of formula to families who do not need it and/or cannot afford it. Formula, though way better than cow's milk, and medically necessary for many babies, is not nearly as good as breastmilk for a whole host of reasons, but it was still a potentially lifesaving wonder invention for the families who really needed it.)
posted by BlueJae at 7:16 AM on March 14, 2013 [16 favorites]


apparently not if they live in a poor country, as they apparently have no agency.
...
Poor, often-illiterate people mostly don't have the luxury of choosing how to spend their time, of choosing to spend it studying the nuances of any particular issue in depth for themselves.


Exactly. If anything reflects a POV biased by privilege--to resort to an already overused term that hopefully still has a residuum of meaning left despite its overuse--it's belief in absolute agency independent of economic exegencies and social circumstances.

It's exactly the privileged habit of taking personal agency for granted, and ignoring the hard realities most of us face of living under economic and social constraints that limit our own personal agency, that's at the root of so many of the current political problems in the US.

Policies that leave us more exposed to the dictates of strict economic necessity make a majority of us less free to exercise agency, not more, despite all the jingoistic rhetoric about "freedom" and the casual rhetorical conflation of all the different senses of that word we've seen over the last few decades for purposes of scoring political points and promoting neo-liberal economic theory.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:41 AM on March 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


Given the high visibility of the baby formula issue, I'd bet that right now Chinese-manufactured formula is among the safest and purest in the world--when these things become known, the Chinese government responds with tremendous force to correct the problem, usually over-compensating for the original flaws in safety standards and enforcement.

You would lose that bet. Not everyone is able to afford the upwardly spiraling costs of imported milk formula. Meanwhile the locally based formula has been forced by the market to continually reduce its price to attract customers. In order to preserve profit--and don't forget the large number of babies we are talking about here--the producers will continue to cut costs. Adding melamine to the milk and water mixture will fool the test for nitrogen levels that are used to indicate milk protein levels and then they have a milk product with less milk in it which cuts their costs. This problem is ongoing even with the knowledge and executions. Hell the same milk powder that was initially detected wasn't even completely destroyed and reappeared on the shelves a couple of years later. There is simply too much demand and not enough capital to satisfy it.

This is probably not only happening with formula or in China. Many protein based products use a similar test. The short term acute harmful effects are only easily traceable to this product because babies' diets consist of only one food and their kidneys and livers haven't developed enough to get rid of the toxin without their suffering great sometimes fatal damage. Adults will only suffer long term damage and figuring out what is giving it to them due to their diet of more than one type of food is pretty tricky.

Sorry if I sound too clinical/cynical when talking about this. I think I already went crazy about this for about two years. My babies were born in Beijing in November 2007. I was one of the first people to start this international formula trade. My kids were ultimately raised on breast milk, American formula, Australian formula, Korean formula, etc... Basically any person we knew was asking any person they knew to bring us formula from abroad, or ship it from abroad.

One of my friends who helped me is pregnant now. I am tempted to plan a trip to the Netherlands to see if a white guy gets stopped from buying oodles of formula. Even if one store did stop me, I would just visit every other one. There is simply no way I can bring myself to care enough about the long term budget problems I may be causing the Dutch government when one baby I know may be poisoned. I probably really won't go there, but I guarantee that when I go to Seoul next week, I will be filling my suitcase with formula and pre-natal vitamins.
posted by wobumingbai at 8:05 AM on March 14, 2013 [8 favorites]


hoyland: It's not that they "don't know any better", it's that they've made the best decision they can with their resources (be the constrained resource information or...
Is it the connotation of the phrase "don't know any better" that offends you? I could understand that. But if availability of information is a constraint then it is exactly correct, if you can find it in you to take the phrase at its face value and no more. I've made plenty of mistakes because I didn't know any better, and I have no problem admitting that.
But because they're in the US, we call them bad mothers. Calling them either stupid or bad mothers is bad, obviously.
I haven't seen any comments in here that I would interpret as implying anyone was a "bad mother" or "stupid" for their choice in baby-feeding. I know from recent personal experience that mothers can be very sensitive to what they perceive as their own shortcomings relative to the impossible perfection of the image of The Best Of All Possible Mothers(TM) that is sold to all of us through advertising and "parenting" media that exist to sell that advertising. I feel the blame lies with the voracious, incessant marketing that creates and exploits these feelings. Not with the parents.
They're almost certainly making a decision that makes sense in their lives.
It's my understanding that poor, illiterate mothers in the developing world are, or have been, straight-up lied to by the formula makers at pretty much every opportunity, and that those formula makers work hard to make sure many newborn babies never get even a drop of breast milk, meaning that in the days and weeks that follow, formula will be the only option. That's not any sort of knock on the mothers, but it's not necessarily the case that they 1) consciously made any a decision at all or 2) ultimately find themselves in a baby-feeding arrangement well-suited to their economic and nutritional situation.

The mothers in my family have first-hand stories of lying formula pushers going back to at least 1945. Formula exists because of real needs and it's fine to choose it, but the grudge some people hold against the formula marketers has real, deep, old motivation.
posted by Western Infidels at 8:30 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


> This is pretty condescending and offensive. People in poor countries aren't capable of making the same calculations about what to feed their babies as people in rich countries?

That's not what I meant and sorry if it came across that way. And it's not intended as a critique of baby formula.

People rich and poor both have self-agency, and they're both also vulnerable to peer pressure and marketing and fashion. The problem in this particular case is that if the rich are oversold on formula, the deleterious effects are minimal because they can afford to live where regulations and enforcement make the formula trustworthy and they can afford to prepare it properly -- but if the poor are oversold on formula, they may not be able to prepare it properly (the circumstances underlying the 1977 Nestle boycott) or may be buying unreliable formula in lieu of access to reliable product.
posted by ardgedee at 8:35 AM on March 14, 2013


There is simply no way I can bring myself to care enough about the long term budget problems I may be causing the Dutch government when one baby I know may be poisoned.
You don't have to steal from the Dutch state to buy infant formula. It's just that these traders are profit-driven, and they don't care that they're robbing Dutch taxpayers or leaving families in The Netherlands without enough formula to feed their own kids. That's what maximizes their profits. You, on the other hand, probably have the luxury of buying unsubsidized infant formula if you want to, and you can go anywhere to buy that.
posted by 1adam12 at 9:12 AM on March 14, 2013


Given environmental, demographic & monetary pressures you can all expect to see a lot more of this sort of thing happening in the very near future, across multiple societies. Tip of the iceberg, and we're all sitting happily on the Titanic steaming through the North Atlantic at flank speed.
posted by aramaic at 9:13 AM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


I see this over here in Germany, too: Chinese people bulk-buying formula boxes at the local supermarkets. I always just assumed we had a lot of very fertile Chinese people living in town.
posted by dominik at 9:19 AM on March 14, 2013


No doubt there are legions of people staffing huge underground factories producing counterfeit Dutch baby formula somewhere in China. The packaging is so good the actual manufacturer can't tell the difference.
posted by Meatbomb at 10:09 AM on March 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


Just so we're on the same page, I'll mention that formula is essential for some babies. Lots of women, like my wife, have low milk production, not sufficient to be a baby's only source of food. OK.

You don't see this Chinese bulk-buying in the US because formula there is so expensive. It's not just lack of subsidy, the big US manufacturers have got margin to burn. Witness how they can afford to bombard new moms with free product (at first) and then a steady stream of $7-off coupons.
I instead get the Kirkland formula from Costco which is functionally identical to the big brands but half the price. The packaging is less annoying too.
posted by w0mbat at 10:25 AM on March 14, 2013


This is a phenomenon in New Zealand too. I imagine iit's happening anywhere there's a safeish regulatory environment and a Chinese diaspora.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 11:31 AM on March 14, 2013


On March 1, a Hong Kong emergency export limit restricting travelers to mainland China to a maximum of two cans per purchaser became law.

I have it from reliable sources that the following exchange recently took place at the border from Hong Kong to mainland China, between a Chinese citizen and a border guard who had just discovered 20 large plastic bags with milk powder:

[Border guard, sharply] What is this?
[Chinese citizen, jokingly] It's Heroin, what do you think it is?
[Border guard] Well, alright then. As long as it isn't formula...
posted by sour cream at 11:32 AM on March 14, 2013


This piece also highlights issues around the global supply chain. Surely it would be cheaper - subsidy or no - for nestle et al, to sell their formula direct in China, even if it was imported in bulk?
Of course it would, but how would a Chinese consumer know that it was the same product sold in Europe, and not made or adulterated in a Chinese factory?
The reason they steal it is still because there are people who can't really afford formula to feed their babies and buying it at a discount from thieves is their only option. This still sucks because 1) I am against stealing 2) it means people are feeding their babies potentially unregulated products of unguaranteed provenance 3) it's abhorrent that people need to resort to the black market to feed babies.
Do you have any evidence for that? I find that kind of hard to believe, who would have enough cash to buy baby food from thieves but not enough food stamps to just buy it from stores? If they're stealing baby food, they must be out of both cash and EBT.

Usually the "Black Market" for food in the US is people with food stamps trying to convert food into cash. I suppose Canada might be a little different.
No amount of regulation is going to stop people from adultering the food supply
Lolwhat?

If people think that if they adulterate food they'll go to jail, they won't do it. You need both regulation and enforcement. I'm sure china has rules against adulterating baby food, but the problem is enforcement.
And in information-loving Western Europe a whole bunch of people didn't just eat horse meat by accident.
Horse meat isn't bad for you, and in fact it's actually eaten on purpose in a lot of European countries anyway. It's like the equivalent of beef having pork or chicken mixed in. It's not supposed to be there, but it's not going to hurt anyone.
That's kind of my point. It's not that they "don't know any better", it's that they've made the best decision they can with their resources
Well, look. It's not like advertising isn't capable of tricking people into making poor decisions. Think about all the ads for cigarettes in the 1950s telling people smoking was good for your health and your "T-zone"? Saying that people in poor countries are tricked by advertising isn't making the claim that people in poor countries are somehow defective, Americans do all kinds of unhealthy things in response to constant advertising (like drinking sugary drinks)
posted by delmoi at 12:21 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


BlueJae: the composition of human breast milk and cows milk are very, very similar. human milk has as much fat, twice the sugar and half the protein of cow's milk. neither milk has any useful amount of iron---you *must* feed your non-formula baby iron starting between four to six months. cow's milk has significantly higher fraction of curd protein (casein) while human milk is mostly whey---bleeding happens in slightly fewer infants fed human milk but its not uncommon in either case. however, cow's milk has about double the dissolved ion concentration (osmolarity, similar to saltiness but including everything not just Na+ and Cl-) which must be excreted via the kidneys along with the extra protein. until the early 70s most babies in the UK were weaned on National Dried Milk, and after it was discontinued the incidence of hypernatremic dehydration (highly osmolar blood) declined immediately showing that in fact straight cow's milk is not "watery" enough for some infant kidneys and thus: we now have safer alternatives to cow's milk, but that in fact cow's milk enjoyed a long and successful run as a stand-in for breastmilk.

now: what happened in China was they took dried cow's milk and cut in an essentially non-edible nitrogen containing compound: melamine (as in Formica or laminate flooring). the product was tested for nitrogen which was assumed to come entirely from protein. Sanlu knew of this and went down for it; and one supplier and his knowing buyer were executed. however, the practice was widespread: at least 20% of milk suppliers tested positive for melamine in 2008.

in China the problem of food contamination is endemic to a society which (1) lacks a separation of Commerce and State, and (2) lacks freedom to complain when products kill or sicken.

i think reasonable people raising an infant in China would start to look at infant formula with skepticism and perhaps consider feeding their child a product that looks, tastes and feels like the old substitute for breastmilk: cow's milk.
posted by dongolier at 2:31 PM on March 14, 2013


you *must* feed your non-formula baby iron starting between four to six months.

I didn't, neither of my kids ever tested anemic, and they're both fine now (at two and six years old).
posted by KathrynT at 3:27 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


-you *must* feed your non-formula baby iron starting between four to six months.
Uh... hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution would indicate otherwise.
posted by delmoi at 4:12 PM on March 14, 2013


"The relatively low intake of iron from complimentary feeding is also a concern as iron stores are depleted by six months of age and the concentration of iron in breast milk is insignificant [11]. Beyond six months of age, the majority of infants' daily iron must be supplied by complimentary feeding [11]." James K. Friel et al., BMC Pediatr. 2010

They go on to cite 24% of canadian infants have low iron stores---the composition of iron fortified formula excludes these from the low iron group, although this is not stated. The main problem with iron deficiency is that its often clinically silent until it becomes so extreme that it affects the childs long term development and brain.

it is imperative you feed your non-formula baby iron starting between four to six months.
posted by dongolier at 4:54 PM on March 14, 2013


Given how terrible supplementary iron tastes and how incredibly difficult it often is to get kids to take it, why not test kids for anemia first? There's no point in trying to force iron drops into a child who won't even eat strained pears if her iron is fine.
posted by KathrynT at 5:11 PM on March 14, 2013


Most babies I know in my developing country start getting food other than breast milk before they are six months old, including fruits and meat. As soon as babies can hold their head up their are given tiny spoonfuls of banana and chicken puree. The one baby I know in a developed country never got iron suplements, but was eating fruit and vegetables by 5 months.

I believe that for thousands of years of human history or prehistory moms would be elated when their babies started trying to eat stuff other than breast milk, so Jo need for supplements.

By day 5 of having our baby, who would fall asleep while breastfeeding and who was apparently not getting enough milk from my wife, we would have paid $100 a bottle for good formula. Fortunately we had the grandmother here, who helped us through. Breastfeeding is a pain in the ass and other sensitive areas. We know about the benefits, but if someone came up with artificial breast and a formula that exactly mimics all the benefits of breast milk we would sell the car and bicycles to get one.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 5:20 PM on March 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Horse meat isn't bad for you, and in fact it's actually eaten on purpose in a lot of European countries anyway."

No shit. But the point is that even in relatively "free" Western Europe, people got duped due to a lack of regulatory oversight in the food chain.
posted by bardic at 10:23 PM on March 14, 2013


dongolier: "it is imperative you feed your non-formula baby iron starting between four to six months."

A few hundred thousand years of evolution in action suggests that any idea that it is "imperative" to supplement breast-fed babies with iron is probably bullshit.

Kelly Mom seems to agree & has the references to back them up. Essentially, the evidence is that the iron content of breast milk is almost entirely absorbed by the child & so the absolute difference in levels is less important than would otherwise be the case. Their advice is that you should only supplement with iron if you there's a reason to suspect iron deficiency (interestingly, anaemia in pregnancy is not correlated with the child being anaemic!), mainly either premature birth or uncontrolled diabetes during the pregnancy.

As I understand things, over-supplementation with iron carries it's own risks, so giving iron to a child who is already well-supplied may be a net negative. Any campaign of universal iron supplementation is therefore unlikely to be a net benefit to soceity: the costs to infants who already have sufficient iron may well outweigh the benefits to those who happened to be iron deficient.
posted by pharm at 7:47 AM on March 15, 2013




Well duh. Same as the crazy health effects claimed of smart meters here.
posted by Mitheral at 6:10 PM on March 16, 2013


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