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: