Mothers buy foreign formula online
Illegally imported food sellers offer cheaper prices and products unavailable in China
"Lin Fang," a source who spoke on condition of anonymity, sells Nutricia New Zealand Ltd products such as Karicare baby formula online. The products are unavailable on stores shelves in China.
Lin refused to reveal her real identity because her business is not legal in China, as she needs approval from the State Food and Drug Administration to sell imported food.
Many Chinese parents shun local brand milk powder after the Sanlu baby formula scandal in 2008.
Her relative, who lives in New Zealand, purchases 15 boxes (about 90 tins) of milk powder from supermarkets in New Zealand every week and mails them to China.
Lin started selling baby formula last July through Taobao.com. She usually sells 10 to 20 tins per day for 170 yuan each. She earns a 10-yuan ($1.50) profit on each tin. The tins cost the equivalent of about 100 yuan each in New Zealand supermarkets.
She said her new business provides her and her newborn baby a comfortable life. She makes around 2,000 yuan every month, roughly equivalent to the salary she made before giving birth to her baby and quitting her job.
"It is really nice that I can take care of my baby full-time while still making some money," she said.
Lin is one of thousands of people in China who open virtual stores online selling foreign baby formula. A search for "private seller of foreign baby formula" on Taobao.com, China's biggest online shopping website, brings up 5,922 stores. Stores selling New Zealand brand baby milk powder are the biggest group followed by formula made in Japan.
The most popular brands are Karicare and Anchor, both made in New Zealand.
The amount of New Zealand milk powder sold online in China is of such volume that the New Zealand Food Safety Authority (NZFSA) has said it will investigate the matter, according a story on the New Zealand news website nzherald.co.nz.
All food products exported from New Zealand to China requires a certificate from the NZFSA, said Neil McLeod, NZFSA senior program manager.
"If it's a commercial venture and they are not getting certification from us, then it's something we'll look at," said McLeod.
He also said he was surprised the Chinese authorities were allowing such trading to take place.
New Zealand supermarkets recently introduced limits on the amount of baby formula any one customer can buy, according to the nzherald.co.nz story.
But a Taobao.com baby milk powder storeowner surnamed Wang told METRO that if supermarkets restrict the quantity he can purchase at one time, he will simply go more often.
"It will take more time, but it won't do any harm to my business," said Wang, who also works as a tour guide and goes to New Zealand often.
Buyers say expensive prices are the main reason they don't buy imported milk powder through more legitimate channels.
Ma Yu, the mother of a one-year-old girl, told METRO that Beijing Lufthansa Shopping Center's supermarket, which offers mostly foreign food, sells an Australian brand milk powder for 900 yuan per tin while an online trader charges only 170 yuan per tin for the same brand.
Meiji, a popular Japanese baby formula, sells for 345 yuan per tin at the Lufthansa Shopping Center, while it sells for 195 yuan on Taobao.com, not including courier fees.
Ma said her baby consumes three tins worth of formula every month and that she saves more than 2,000 yuan each month buying it online.
"I know the private trader who sold the milk powder to me didn't pay any imports tariff, so it is like smuggling," she said. "But I want my baby to have the best food without paying too much money - I don't have any other choice."
She said she will never buy a local brand after the Sanlu baby formula scandal in 2008.
But child nutrition specialists suggest parents be cautious about buying baby formula online.
China's nutrition standards for baby milk powder nutrition are stricter even than those in the US, said Wu Guangchi, a committee member of the National Center for Woman and Children's Health.
China's standards require higher protein content and the US standards have no limit on the content of microelements, added Wu.
Baby formula brought to China without being inspected by customs not only might be less nutritious, but also may have gone bad or been unhygienically handled during transportation according to Wu.
He also added that if a baby formula brought from an online trader has quality or safety issues, buyers will have a hard time getting compensation.