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Hong Kong: Panic Over Milk Powder Shortage

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

Hong Kong has been facing a shortage of infant milk powder ever since December 2010, when mainland Chinese customers purchased large amounts of baby milk formula in Hong Kong and stockpiled it in preparation for the Lunar New Year break.

Local Hong Kong parents have called for intervention policies from the government, suggesting a milk powder departure tax to stop smugglers from carrying it across the border for resale.

Both Hong Kong and Chinese parents want safe baby milk formula powder. Image by Flickr user k.Akagami.

Both Hong Kong and Chinese parents want safe baby milk formula powder. Image by Flickr user k.Akagami.

Scandals and smuggling

The root cause of the current milk powder shortage can be traced back to the notorious melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008. Since then, scandals concerning milk safety in China have kept emerging from time to time.

Recent examples include the discovery of elevated hormone levels in infant milk in 2010 and the February 2011 scandal of cancer-causing leather chemicals in dairy products.

In order to protect their babies from poisonous milk, mainland Chinese middle class parents buy foreign baby milk powder by any means possible. Some even opt to travel to Hong Kong to purchase infant milk products.

Smugglers are taking advantage of this profit-making opportunity and actively organize “professional travelers” to hand-carry milk powder across the border for reselling. Reports have said that some mainland customers will pay an additional HKD50 (USD6) for each container of milk.

Reactions from Hong Kong parents

In the face of the formula shortage, angry Hong Kong parents organized a petition and called for the introduction of a baby milk powder departure tax in January 2011. fionali3721 [zh] is the initiator of the campaign on the Baby Kingdom forum:

自發BK.member聯合要求政府開徵奶粉離境稅,希望引起有關人仕關注。支持者請入來留言。註明(我支持。)

每名香港離境往中國大陸人仕,只可携帶壹罐,必須已經打開食用過之任何品牌嬰幼兒奶粉 。否則嚴格徵收10倍罰則。相信有效打擊水貨分子危害香港穩定。同時嚴厲打擊現時猖狂的走私者。因為他們正在加速令到我們香港之物價提高。造成我們正在香港生活的市民百上加斤。

以群眾力量,換取BABY權益。

BK [forum] members jointly urge the government to impose a milk powder departure tax. We also want to arouse public concern on the issue. Supporters please leave a message and state: [I support]

Each individual departing for Mainland China should only be allowed to bring one can of infant formula milk powder, and it should already be opened. Otherwise a fine of ten times [the powder's value] should be charged. We believe this policy could effectively discourage smugglers and stabilize Hong Kong’s milk powder supply. The smugglers have caused serious inflation in [the cost of milk formula] in Hong Kong, adding an extra burden to Hong Kong people's living expenses.

People power to defend BABIE'S rights.

On the one hand, parents in Hong Kong feel helpless and angry about the milk shortage, one the other hand, they also sympathise with their mainland Chinese counterparts who are victims of irresponsible governance. XsQsMe from online forum Review33 has commented:

“我們很同情中國的父母,
但是也擔心由此影響到我們的正常生活。真的很痛

有個咁嘅政權,我都好心痛。千憶攪奧運又得,千憶攪神七神八又得,假蛋、sophone又造到,養多幾隻乳牛生產牛奶就唔得,由得自己國家嘅BB自生自滅,所以第三世界永遠都係第三世界!

We sympathise with the mainland parents, but also worry that our livelihoods will be affected. It’s a painful dilemma.

It’s extremely sad to live under such a political regime: spending billions on the Olympic Games and the [Chinese national] space project, producing fake products from artificial eggs to the SoPhone (modeled on the iPhone), while failing to raise enough cows for milk, leaving its babies to suffer. A Third World Country is always a Third World Country!

Mainland parents’ responses

Since infant milk is a daily necessity, parents from mainland China continue to share information and strategies on how to purchase safe milk for their babies. Green tea Chestnut Cake from Guangzhou Moms alerts about a quota in purchasing milk powder in Hong Kong and Macau:

今日的报纸新闻都在说啦,香港澳门限购奶粉了,不过说开征奶粉税应该就是不可能的事情,大家还是可以去买奶粉的,不过大家要注意哪里能买多少罐啊!

听说明治在广州这边也断货了,美赞臣跟美素也有一些断货,不过说是下周美素所有阶段的都会有货啦

Today’s newspapers have reported that both Hong Kong and Macau are imposing quotas on milk powder purchase! But milk powder tax is not a viable option. So we can still continue buying milk powder across the border, just to be aware the quantity!

Heard that the brand Meiji is also out of stock here in Guangzhou, Meadjohnson and Friso [brands] are in limited supply, hopefully Friso will have new stocks by next week.

Wenxi Mom expresses her concerns:

我们真可怜, 拿着血汗钱想给孩子买点安全的东西还买不到

Poor us, we can't even use our hard earned money to buy safe products for our children.

The Hong Kong government has promised to stabilize the supply of infant milk powder, but the conflict between mainland and Hong Kong parents is intensifying.

Last week, on March 9, 2011, five people – three from the mainland and two from Hong Kong - were arrested for fist fighting over milk powder in Hong Kong [zh].

This post is part of our special coverage Global Development 2011.

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