The news that an investigation has been ordered by China's premier, Wen Jiabao, into the deaths of at least 12 babies after drinking fake formula milk has led to a renewed quest for manufactuers to find processing and packaging solutions to help combat the problem.
In addition to those that died, another 229 babies were found to be suffering from malnutrition after drinking the fake formula, which lacked most nutrients. Chinese police have detained 47 people accused of making or selling the formula, mostly in grocery stores in farming areas on the outskirts of the eastern Chinese city of Fuyang. What is perhaps most alarming is that some 40 companies in ten provinces of China were found to be making fake formula and over 100,000 bags of fake milk powder were confiscated.
The makers produced the fake powder by mixing starch, sugar, milk essence and other cheap ingredients, rendering the milk powder deficient in protein, fat, vitamin, which are necessary for child growth. Babies who were fed the formula developed what Chinese doctors called "big head disease," causing their heads to swell while their bodies wasted away. The symptoms are like those of edema, a build-up of fluid that is a feature of starvation.
China's thriving industry in product piracy is best known for copying the latest software, Hollywood movies or designer clothing. Now the problem of faking food is coming to the fore. Of course this is not necessarily new. Consumers are traditionally wary of fruit bearing the Sunkist or Cape label in stores while discarded toxic chemicals have been known to be passed off as table salt. Counterfeiting has also long been a problem for beer and soft drink brands, with repeated cases of fake beer bottles exploding and causing serious injuries.
Additionally rampant and flagrant trademark piracy has affected many brands including Coca-Cola, Starbucks and even a number of leading cheese brands. Copycat or look alike products are flooding the market, such as the local Haagen-Dazs rip off ice cream packs pictured below. Nestle is one of the biggest international food manufacturers in China and has a clear market lead throughout Asia in the growing baby food segment. Its baby products are generally regarded as premium brands, a position that the company is obviously keen to protect.
"We are not planning to profit from the misfortunes of others but we will make a big effort to ensure products are of the highest quality," said company spokesman Francois-Xavier Perroud earlier this month.
"In particular we have been fighting very hard to avoid instances of mislabeling which is obviously damaging for our brands. We believe that parents in China tend to trust established brand and Nestle intends to continue to benefit from this trust."
Perroud confirmed that in the past some non-Nestle products had been repackaged using Nestle packaging and labelling and that this was an issue the company would battle against.
"We will continue to make every effort to ensure that consumers receive the promised product," he said. "In the meantime the company plans to continue the research and development necessary to ensure quality control and the traceability of products."
Increasing legislation is one way of tackling the problem, and it is an area that the Chinese government is now under increased pressure to solve. However there are a number of ways in which manufacturers can tackle the problem themselves. The most obvious way is by increasing the safety of packaging. Now many companies in China are actively seeking a host of packaging and processing solutions to help them in their battle.
This report has been brought to you from Access Asia, with additional reporting from Simon Pitman.