British shops ration baby milk as Chinese demand surges

Thu Apr 11, 2013 11:37am EDT
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By Peter Griffiths and Dasha Afanasieva

LONDON (Reuters) - British shops are rationing sales of baby milk after Chinese visitors and bulk buyers cleared their shelves to send it to China, where many parents fear the local versions are dangerous.

The British Retail Consortium (BRC), whose members account for 80 percent of the sector, said many stores had imposed a two-box limit on each customer to deter the "unofficial exports" to China.

Demand for foreign milk powder has been high in China since at least six infants died and 300,000 fell ill in 2008 after they drank milk laced with the industrial chemical melamine.

The scandal sapped consumer confidence in Chinese-made food and led to shortages of powdered milk in Hong Kong and Australia as people bought boxes to export to China.

The rise of the middle-class Chinese working mother has greatly increased sales of baby milk in the world's most populous country. Fast-growing markets like China support a global baby food market worth an estimated $30 billion a year.

"The major retailers of baby milk - supermarkets, chemists - are restricting sales," said BRC spokesman Richard Dodd. "They have done this in response to some customers buying unusually large amounts. The irregular buying patterns are thought to be a result of unofficial exporting to China."

The buyers include Chinese tourists and students who take a few cartons home with them or post them to relatives. There are also organized groups who buy large amounts of powder to export to China, one businessman involved in the trade told Sky News.

"There are three types of people like us. The first you get (are) students or visitors who get asked to send one or two tins back to family or friends. Then you get small and medium businesses like me," the man, based in northern England, told Sky News.   Continued...

Shoppers browse the aisles in the Canary Wharf store of Waitrose in London January 23, 2013. REUTERS/Neil Hall