Milk formula products in a Wan Chai pharmacy. Photo: David Wong
A China Central Television (CCTV) program has attacked 19 infant milk formula brands from seven foreign countries, which are popular on the cross-border online shopping platforms, for containing nutrient levels that are not in conformity with Chinese national standards.
The exposure came as Chinese consumers developed loyalty for the foreign-made infant milk formulas since 2008 when melamine-tainted products of the then largest Chinese milk powder manufacturer Sanlu led to the death of six infants and illness of about 300,000 babies. The scandal prompted Chinese parents to buy infant formulas made overseas through cross-border online shopping sites, thus causing a big loss of business for Chinese producers.
The 19 infant milk formula brands, which the CCTV program said could hurt babies because the levels of the minerals and vitamins were inconsistent with China's national standards, include Mead Johnson and Abbott from the US, the Netherlands' Nutrilon, Germany's Aptamil and Japanese Meiji which were procured by the state media on leading retail sites such as jd.com and taobao.com.
The 19 samples were sent to the National Food Quality Supervision and Inspection Center to be tested for 12 minerals, 13 vitamins and two contaminants, which was supervised by the China Dairy Industry Association.
Eight products were found to have levels of iron, manganese, iodine and selenium that did not comply with China's national standards. Three products manufactured in the US were found to have excessive iron, which surpassed the upper limit set by the Chinese standards.
"The US only sets a lower limit for iron in infant milk formulas but no upper limit. The three products (tested) are in line with the American standards. China sets an upper limit for iron because Chinese babies have different physical conditions from their American counterparts," said Nan Qingxian, a professor at China Agricultural University, who participated in the setting of China's standards for infant milk formula. The professor added that excessive intake of iron can lead to gastrointestinal bleeding.
The testing also found that a Japanese product had too little iodine, which Li Keji, a professor from the School of Public Health of Peking University, attributed to the fact that Japanese people eat a lot of seafood which contain enough iodine for the health of a human body.
Wang Junbo, director general of the Beijing Nutrition Society, warned that lack of iodine in early years would increase the possibility of contracting cretinism.
None of the samples tested contained either of the two contaminants.
Accordingly, the Chinese state television called on Chinese parents to switch back to home-made infant milk formulas, saying that the Chinese standards are specially designed for Chinese babies with different dietary habits and physical conditions. If the Chinese babies used such foreign-made milk formulas for a long time, they could develop certain health problems, said the CCTV.
Wang recommended that Chinese parents should buy foreign-made milk powder products imported through legal channels as it guarantees the nutritional needs of their babies.
However, some Internet users seemed to make light of the testing.
"I believe that China is very strict in setting the national standards for infant milk formulas. But the problem is that how many domestic producers will strictly implement such standards, especially when there is lack of supervision and punishment," wrote a Weibo user.
"Home-grown milk powder products not only have levels of micronutrients that reach the national standards, but also contain certain 'nutritional elements' (referring to toxic substances like melamine) that are not allowed by the national standards and cannot be detected," satirized another Weibo user. "Can you dare to send these products overseas for testing?"
A nutritionist said that the deficiencies of nutrient content in the products tested fall short of a risk to the Chinese infants' health because they can supplement the nutrition from other food.
Some Weibo users even likened the CCTV program to a "political purge", which targeted foreign companies, as the Chinese government has grown more unfriendly toward foreign firms operating in China since Xi Jinping took office as president in 2013. Earlier this year in a tour of the People's Daily and CCTV, the Chinese president sermonized the domestic mainstream media to take orders from the Communist Party.