Foreign baby in China essentials: IMPORTED BABY FORMULA

(I told you so!)

If you have an infant in China and you’re using baby formula, then this is for you.

The Problem

After the 2008 melamine milk powder scandal, in which several infants died and hundreds of thousands were harmed by drinking melamine-tainted baby formula, we heard other foreigners multiple times say, “Now’s the best time buy Chinese milk powder — it’s never been safer.” Thankfully, we knew better.

That kind of thinking is what Chinese people call “using foreign thinking to understand China” — in other words: wrong. Now in 2010 it’s all over the news that 170 tons of unsafe milk powder products that were supposed to be destroyed in the wake of the 2008 scandal were simply repackaged and put back on store shelves. Melamine is an industrial chemical used in plastics and adhesives that also creates false, boosted protein readings on quality tests of watered-down milk powder solutions so that they don’t appear diluted. It also causes kidney stones and kidney failure. Despite the very public scandal, people knowingly repackaged and resold a product that they knew was lethal. Silly foreigners; “you laowais can’t understand China.”

It’s not a matter of being overly cynical about the priorities of China’s highest leaders. The system is broken, or rather, it was never designed to protect and empower individuals and the public in the first place (just the opposite; it was designed to empower the rulers at the expense of the people). Even if high-level leaders have good intentions they simply can’t adequately enforce these kinds of policies. In response to a major international scandal in which babies died, hundreds of thousands were harmed and the public was outraged, they executed a dairy farmer and a salesman, shuffled the responsible gov. officials around, and obviously failed to remove 170 tons of the stuff that caused the damage in the first place. (Those ‘disgraced’ officials are now back in same-level or higher positions.)

It borders on irresponsible, in my opinion, to trust the Chinese system more than you have to. Thankfully, when it comes to baby formula, trusting the system is unnecessary.

Breast milk is best, of course, but if you live in China and your baby needs formula, 怎么办

Our Solution

When we need baby formula, we use Táobǎo to get imported name-brand Dutch formula (inspected by our Dutch friends) for the same price or cheaper than what’s on the store shelves in China. No doubt it includes ingredients made in China, but Dutch babies haven’t gotten kidney stones from baby formula yet.

Taobao.com is the cuter, blinkier, Chinese eBay. Some of your Chinese friends or co-workers most likely have accounts. My Chinese co-workers used to shop on Táobǎo all day before the company blocked the site. Get someone to order imported formula for you or open your own account (opening an account requires Chinese and Táobǎo accounts can be complicated, even for locals).

*Special tip: The first time you order from a vendor on Taobao.com, order a small amount so you can check the product closely to see if anything looks suspicious. You can get fake stuff on Taobao just as easily as anywhere else. If it checks out, you’re good to go! The vendor we use is here.

**Warning: This is not foolproof! By ordering off Táobǎo you’re trusting your ability to spot a fake product. Some fakes can be very well done. Be extremely careful. Ordering imported formula from Taobao is no guarantee, it’s just significantly better odds than domestic formula, imo. For a safer and only slightly more expensive option, see the first and fifth comments below.

If anyone has any other baby-formula-in-China advice, please let us know in the comments!

(This is the first in a series; several more are cued up, in no particular order. We have a baby, so as we discover the tricks of the trade in China, we’ll share them here.)

Related:

Other foreign baby in China essentials:

34 thoughts on “Foreign baby in China essentials: IMPORTED BABY FORMULA

  1. I gotta say Joel, that’s a pretty big leap of faith. Anyone can sell on Taobao and there’s no reason (or less reason) to trust them any more than your local supermarket.

    I buy all sorts of stuff on there and love it. But I go into every transaction pretty much assuming it’s fake, and most everything I’ve bought has been (despite the seller exclaiming in large text that it’s absolutely 100% real).

    The flaw in the logic comes down to you still having to “trust” something in China and as you clearly stated above, that’s just not possible.

    If someone looking to make money and is willing to dump melamine into the dairy supply of virtually every dairy-product manufacturer in the country, really how much of a stretch is it to think that a company with a decent manufacturing setup isn’t just going out, buying one real version of the product and copying it down to the nutritional information on the back?

    Obviously some fakes are simple to spot, but the best ones would fool the founder, and we’re not exactly talking Rembrandts here.

  2. Hi there, another way to be sure your infant formula is safe is to import it from your home country. I get Aptamil formula through a UK website, Britishcornershop. Although it is much more expensive than it would be in the shops in the UK, it is comparable to what formula costs in China ie around RMB160 per tin including postage. And I KNOW it has not come from China. As a family we also only consume imported milk as we think this is a necessary expense. Fortunately you don’t need to ship that from overseas!

  3. @scottishlaura,
    I didn’t know you could import directly from your home country at a price comparable to stuff on the shelves in China. That certainly would help avoid some of the inherent risk of getting faked products on Taobao. Would you mind sharing the links/info with us?

    @Ryan,
    I totally agree that fake stuff is all over Taobao (maybe I should have emphasized that more in the ‘special tip’), and I agree that using Taobao is still ‘trusting the Chinese system’ in a way (though in a different way from what I was talking about in the post). When we order Dutch formula through Taobao, ultimately we’re trusting our own ability and that of our Dutch friends to spot a fake. I’m going to add a disclaimer to the post.

  4. To be fair, that 170 tons of melamine-contaminated powder was stored away until the dust had settled, so for a few months it probably was quite safe to buy Chinese formula.

    How safe would you feel buying imported formula from a reputable supermarket?

  5. I use a British company at the following website: http://www.britishcornershop.co.uk. Back in October I ordered 30 boxes of formula (each box contains 900g) and with shipping it worked out at around £17 per box (twice the UK cost) which is around RMB170. From order to delivery took one week and it was well packed. I am sure there are North American companies doing the same thing although it might take a bit of hunting to find the best price.

    With regards shopping in a reputable supermarket, I buy all my other imported goods in a reputable supermarket but felt that with something as important as formula – after I stopped breastfeeding it was all my baby was consuming and will be until he’s one – I just didn’t want to take any chances. As Ryan says above, the technology is out there to make unidentifiable fakes so that just leaves it down to desire to make money at the expense of little babies and sadly that isn’t lacking either!

  6. Care packages would be the (very) expensive way to go, I think. When our family sends us Christmas presents they have to pay a ton for postage. I can’t imagine that being cost effective.

    I’m curious if anyone finds North American companies offering similar deals to what scottishlaura uses from the U.K. To get 900g cans at 170 each ($26.50CDN) you have to order a LOT at once. We’re paying 150/can $23.50CDN) for the Dutch stuff. Can anyone find comparable quality stuff for cheaper?

  7. “but if you live in China your baby needs formula”

    I don’t get it … why?

    It seems to me that living in China is a good reason to NOT give a baby formula.

    Am I missing something?

    (BTW, I live in China, my wife is a local Chinese, she works full-time … and she breast-fed our daughter exclusively until six months and partly until 29 months. We did not use formula at all. We plan on doing the same with our second child.)

    I’m not bragging … just honestly completely confused. For us it wasn’t an issue. And, on the other side, it seems equally not an issue for the majority of parents here in China who all use formula.

  8. WHOA big typo! I’ll fix that right away. Should read: “If you live in China and your baby needs formula…” as in, some babies/mothers for whatever reasons can’t breastfeed, or can’t breastfeed exclusively. So “if you’re in China, and if you need formula, then…”

    Thanks for pointing that out.

  9. Your Taobao warning seems completely justified Joel. I’ve ordered from Taobao a few dozen times and have only had a problem once or twice, but you can’t play games when you’re messing with baby products. Nice post, thanks for linking here from Chengdu Living!

  10. excellent resource, i thought i commented on this a long time ago, but i don’t see my name anywhere. I must have been high … your Dutch connection is vital and i have heard a lot of moms speak highly of Dutch formula … the fave among diapers are the japanese “Merries” brand … check it out!

  11. How do you perceive the quality of the infant formula of Feihe International (American Diary – brands like Astrobaby and Feifan ?

  12. What’s your opinion of ‘packaged abroad with a Chinese label/can’ option like Friso from Holland, Biostime from France? They do sport code bards from these countries, the info on the packaging does say it’s packaged abroad. Leyou sells these for about the same price than local formula (about 200 rmb for 900 gr.) I feel it’s ‘kind of safer’ to get the formula from Leyou than Taobao.

    We’ve been using Frisolac and so far it seems OK, but it worries me every time I fill a bottle…

    I ordered a can of Aptamil from a big seller on Taobao, and at the best of my knowledge, it did look really genuine. If it’s a fake, it really well made for sure, with all the little details, bells and whistles. One thing: I didn’t like the way that formula dissolved, leaving strange crystals on the sides of the bottle instead of little spots like usual formula. Fake? Weird? Aptamil signature? That can is sitting on my shelf after only using it for a few bottles.

  13. Oh, I forgot to say something: if that’s what’s found in baby formula, I don’t even want to know what’s in Nestle milk powder I use for my coffee and the milk used for 老酸奶…

  14. Hard to say, because I’m not an expert on this stuff, but it’s no secret that companies outright lie on their labels. I suppose you could always try and contact the company directly, and ask them about the products they sell in China, how it’s packaged/shipped, where it’s manufactured, and where the ingredients are manufactured. (If you do, please let us know what they tell you!)

  15. I am very interested in exporting premium organic baby products from the United States to the People’s Republic of China. I never exported anything and this is a new business venture.I wanted to get your readers views. Is there a market? Since the product is 100% organic would it be acceptable to the Chinese market? Any ideas or comments would be helpful?

  16. I found British Online Supermarket [dot] com to be the cheapest UK supplier for baby milk and sometimes they have special offers also. They only sell genuine trusted brands.

  17. I am going to have a baby in china , are there USA suppliers that I can safely order from ? Is Nestle a good brand , it is sold at Walmart?

  18. Hi Anne, Laura,

    I find your posts are very useful. I checked out both online retailors and seem that the Britishonlinesupermarket is indeed cheaper than the Britishcornershop. I now have a quick question – how much custom duty do you need to pay in China once the goods are delivered?

    Thanks,

    Xuan

  19. If People seriously want baby formula shipped over to China then you should contact me from New Zealand, I have all sorts of baby formula I buy and can arrange to send it over

  20. bob kane,

    i’m an american that just moved to china with the intention of importing American made, safe baby products. contact me if you’d like to discuss or exchange ideas. feel free to reach out at charlottekaplan1@yahoo.com.

    best,
    charlotte

  21. Hi I have been reading your blogs with interest and for all of you that are concerened about quality and fake formula I understand that there are people that are producing fake tins that are copied from genuine companies from overseas.
    Our company in New Zealand is looking at launching our own baby formula produced in our factory in Auckland.
    We have now perfected a Anti Counterfeit Protected tin that can not be copied and each tin can be verfied by logging on to our web site before the product is consumed.
    The launch of this product will be at the end of this year.
    The name will be SUPERIOR BABY. We will be requiring distributors in China and other parts of Asia. Alan

Leave a Reply