Hong Kong Baby Milk Powder Wars: The Only Winners are the Infant Formula Manufacturers

infant formula cartoon

Hong Kong and Mainland parents have been pitted against one another in an advertising-fueled fight over infant and toddler processed milk formula.

Hongkongers are dismayed because they can’t always buy formula at their neighborhood stores. They blame shoppers from the Mainland for crossing the border and buying tins of formula in bulk to haul back to Shenzhen for either re-sale or personal use. And indeed, Mainlanders buying up milk powder have caused shortages and empty shelves, especially in current the pre-Chinese New Year buying spree.

Mainlanders, terrified over China-based melamine-tainted milk scares, will pay a premium price for foreign-brand infant formula to ensure the safety of their child’s milk.

The South China Morning Post is currently brimming with articles covering infant formula shortage problems. This list of articles is just from today, February 1st:

Hongkongers have visions of marauding Mainlander hoards taking food from the mouths of their young, and Mainlanders are just desperate to secure safe milk for their young. Both sides are desperate.

Here’s the dirty back-story: milk formula manufacturers market baby/toddler formula aggressively in the Hong Kong region. They market it in ways that contravene World Health Organization guidelines on baby formula advertising. 

Emily Tsang, writing for the SCMP (“Doing what’s best for baby — not milk formula companies.” 23/1/2013) appears to be a key voice of reason amongst the bickering:

“[I]n one of the world’s best-educated and most wealthy cities, women still overwhelming use baby formula.

“While the World Health Organisation describes breastfeeding as “the normal way of providing young infants with the nutrients they need for healthy growth and development” and recommends feeding children exclusively on breast milk up to the age of six months, only 15 per cent of babies aged four to six months in Hong Kong are on this regime.

“One reason is that, despite health professionals’ advice, parents face a well-resourced baby milk industry that relentlessly promotes its product, implying that the best efforts of science are better for baby than nature’s way.

Much of the advertising violates the International Code on Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes drawn up by the WHO and the UN children’s organisation Unicef in 1981.”

Going out in public, advertisements for infant, toddler, and pre-school milk powder formula are easy to spot and common on the MTR.

This high level of advertising — advertising that constantly hints at enhanced IQ, health and growth — drives the market for milk powder. And daily articles over shortages, only provide more free advertising-hipe about the high-demand for milk powder for the manufacturers.

Here’s the rub: most of the infant/toddler milk formula sold is technically unnecessary.

Children under one might need formula in certain cases, but could be drinking breast milk. When mothers return to work they may well need to use formula (I know from experience that pumping is a pain in the ass).  So babies under one year with working mothers (or adopted children, etc) are the group that needs infant milk formula. This is the group that may well require government policies protecting their ability to purchase infant formula.

Children over one can simply drink cows milk, which as an email I received yesterday from Hong Kong’s Department of Health reminded everyone, “is less expensive than formula milk.” Your toddler will not be brighter because he drinks expensive fake milk. Save the money for his college fund. (See full email from the Department of Health here.)

Let’s end the Baby Milk Powder Wars and stop fighting each other over an often unnecessary product.

Stick it to the milk powder manufacturers by not buying milk powder for children over one and breast-feeding babies under one when possible.


I am now stepping off of my soap box. Come back next week for a Chinese New Year series of comic strips!

6 responses to “Hong Kong Baby Milk Powder Wars: The Only Winners are the Infant Formula Manufacturers

  1. Isn’t this just a great example of how advertising exploits our sense of insecurity to make us buy things we don’t need? New parents (particularly first-time parents) are particularly vulnerable. Just look at all the crap we buy for babies that really isn’t necessary.

    • So true. And I’ve certainly bought my share of crap that isn’t necessary. I’ve been so glad to avoid most TV advertising since moving abroad, either because I only watched the BBC (no ads in the UK) or because TV wasn’t worth watching abroad.

  2. actually those PRC locusts are buying everything they can get their hands on, you should experience some of this in your neighborhood given Northern New Terr. (close to the border)

    they horde everything from shampoos, to yogurt drinks, to instant noodles, to milk powder, to TP, and recently, gold (cleaned out a Chau Tai Fok jewelry shop of their gold.)

    • I don’t feel it so much in Tai Po, but I do know that folks in Sheung Shui seem to run out of things. What I can’t figure out is why some enterprising business people don’t open a couple of really big stores selling all of the items that Mainlanders cross the border to buy.

      • Taxes … I suspect and the illusion that IF purchased from Hong Kong – it’s never adulterated – go figure with this baby milk madness but it’s only just begun!

      • The recent treatment of those taking more than two cans out of Hong Kong like any other smuggler of illicit products is completely surreal!

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