China's demand for German baby formula creates black market

A black market for German-made baby formula in China started with a widespread rejection of domestic milk and ended with a 3-year conviction for members of a criminal gang who sold it via the internet.

Daria Sukharchuk
Daria Sukharchuk NewsMavens, Central & Eastern Europe
China's demand for German baby formula creates black market - NewsMavens
Baby drinking formula, PixaBay

Why this story matters:

ZEIT, the German weekly magazine, has investigated an unlikely crime: the smuggling of baby formula from Germany to China. No, there is no shortage of food in China and no ban on imported baby formula. This is a trust issue: Chinese parents are terrified by the scandal involving toxic baby formula ten years ago and do not trust Chinese products.

They are fully convinced that only Aptamil, a baby formula made in Germany, is good enough, and are ready to pay up to 40€ for a box that lasts about 3 weeks.

They do not even trust the formula made in Germany for the Chinese market (according to a spokesperson, the only difference between them is extra iron). This frenzy has led to a surge in the black- and grey-market trade in German baby formula. 

A gang of Romanian and Albanians got involved in this market as well -- stealing the formula from shops and illegally shipping it to China through Rotterdam. All those gangs, of course, find their clients online. 

This is a fascinating glimpse into the world of modern crime, which more and more resembles e-commerce, and its increasing dependence on the Internet. The Chinese parents' panic has also been fuelled by the spread of readily available information -- they learned about the "benefits" of German-market Aptamil from online sources. 

Editor's note: Our reader Louise Courtney informs us that Northern Ireland has seen infant formula shortages after mass purchasing by foreign nationals. Have you witnessed anything similar in your area? If so, let us know at

Details from the story:

  • The demand for German baby formula in China went up in 2008 after 300,000 babies were poisoned (some lethally) by a counterfeit baby formula mixed with melamine.
  • The government has since assured the public that stringent new measures were introduced and that the Chinese-made baby formula was now safe, but Chinese citizens do not believe that.
  • Drinking cow milk is a status symbol in China -- it's modern, and it's associated with growing tall and healthy.
  • Most Chinese mothers stop breastfeeding after a couple of months -- usually because they are afraid to lose their jobs during the parental leave.
  • Babies are then left with grandmothers or nannies, who give them formula
  • in Germany, a pack of Aptamil costs 15€, in China -- up to 40€ if bought online.
  • Shop losses are estimated at around 1.5 billion€
  • The gang members that stole the formula from the shops got up to 3 years in jail
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