And Finally

Milking it

Why Macau saw stocks of baby powder run out

Emptying Macau’s shelves

The residents of Macau are normally keen on mainland Chinese tourists. The local economy has prospered from the wallets of Chinese gamblers, virtually eradicating unemployment and boosting incomes.

Peak season is China’s Lunar New Year. And this year’s seven day holiday – which took place between February 2 and 8 – saw visitor numbers hit 805,000. To put that in context, the average number of visitors to Macau during the week-long Chinese holiday was 57% higher than the average for December. Records were (again) broken for a single day’s casino takings.

But not everyone in Macau was happy about the influx of Chinese visitors. Foremost among those complaining were parents of newborn babies. According to Chinanews.com Chinese tourists were clearing the shelves of imported baby milk powder. Prices of the what remained were marked up by 10%.

“Milk powder has been in short supply,” a staffer in a Macanese pharmacy told the website. “We replenish our stocks in the morning, but they’re usually sold out in the afternoon.”

Local websites in Macau have even called on mainland buyers to face special taxes to stop them buying up all the available stock. Locals complain they’ve been reduced to feeding their babies rice congee when they haven’t been able to buy their favoured brands.

The Shanghai Daily reports that a similar phenomenon was seen in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year too. One mainland visitor arrived in the city with three empty suitcases and took back 12 cans.

Why? One reason is price. An imported Japanese brand of milk powder can cost Rmb104 in Hong Kong, but as much as Rmb298 in China.

But the main motivation is health-related. As we have reported before in WiC, food scares are a worrying fact of life in China, and none more so than those related to contaminated baby milk powder. A major milk powder scandal occurred in 2008 and claimed the lives of 6 babies, making 300,000 sick. The milk had been illegally mixed with melamine to shave costs. Trust in locally-made powder waned.

Since then there have been periodic scares. In WiC75 we wrote about reports that linked infant girls showing premature development to locally-made milk powder sold in Wuhan and Beijing.

The milk powder purchases in Macau and Hong Kong show that parental concerns remain significant. China-based consultant Matthew Crabbe of Access Asia comments: “This renewed and intensive snapping up of infant formula and pharmaceuticals shows that all trust in mainland products has collapsed and that anyone who can get them from Hong Kong, either by going themselves or knowing someone who’s going, will do so. With only the one heir, and no spares, taking chances with mainland babies health is too risky for one-chance parents.”

(For more on Macau and its booming economy, download our special Focus issue on our website www.weekinchina.com).


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