Public concern over milk powder has lingered since the melamine crisis first emerged in 2008. Since then a booming gray market for imported formula has emerged in China thanks to domestic middlemen who have been reportedly cleaning stores out of their stock in places as far away as Germany and Australia.
In Hong Kong parallel traders can make as much as "HK$10 for every tin of formula they [bring]across the border, meaning they earn HK$100 for each of the typical(ly) 20 trips they make each day." The problem has become so rampant local authorities have introduced measures to search and restrict the amount of baggage Mainland visitors can take out of the territory.
In the meantime prices have risen for formula exported from New Zealand "following a clampdown by [domestic]authorities on illegal exports" and thus raising concerns that formula brands from other countries may follow suit (although any ensuing price hikes may have more to do with rising oil prices than restrictions in supply).
This is bad news for families like mine – my wife hasn’t been able to breastfeed our 9-month-old son since she stopped lactating a few months ago and we are now entirely dependent on formula. The case was the same for our now 5-year-old daughter – when she was a baby the average cost of a 728g can was around RMB 150-200 in retail stores (which was already high enough considering how much less these brands were priced in their countries of origin).
Nowadays prices have risen an additional RMB 100-200 for the same amount in stores – prices online are often lower but you take your chances with the sourcing and delivery – and we are now obliged to shell out around RMB 1,000 a month on formula alone. Fortunately we can afford it, but the prices seem over the top considering the same amount can be purchased back home in the US for around $20-25 (RMB 150-175).
This phase will soon pass for us as our son transitions to solids but it appears that ridiculously expensive prices for formula are here to stay in China.