The young man in the advertisement is strapping, lean and apparently healthy. He is also topless – apart from a baby bib wrapped firmly around his neck, embroidered with the words “I love mummy”.
To his left sit four tins of infant formula and a bouncy baby. The implication is clear – feed your son this particular brand of formula and he will grow big and strong like the half-naked man with the bib – and, perhaps, just as devoted to his mother.
At least that’s what Chinese infant formula marketers would have parents believe. Advertisements like these, which are everywhere across China, have helped fuel a surge in demand for infant formula – so much so it is akin to contraband and has been likened to a “white gold rush”, pushing up global milk prices to dizzying heights.
But the Australian dairy industry’s ability to cash in on this boom is far from a fait accompli.
The global infant formula industry is in “chaos” after China introduced tougher regulatory requirements for importers last month, according to the group representing infant formula makers in Australia and New Zealand.
Chinese authorities are cracking down on the industry in an effort to slash the number of imported brands that have flooded the market since 2008, when a Chinese infant formula was contaminated with melamine, killing six babies and putting another 54,000 in hospital.
This month China’s Certification and Accreditation Administration announced it had whittled the number of foreign infant formula brands that can be sold in the country from more than 800 to about 94 in an attempt to tighten food safety standards.
Four Australian brands have gained approval – Australia’s biggest dairy exporter Murray Goulburn, Australian Dairy Park, which is owned by Chinese investors, Viplus Dairy and Blend and Pack.
Murray Goulburn managing director Gary Helou said the regulatory process was “very rigorous” and included an audit of the co-operative’s operations.
He said much of China’s concerns centred on tracing the product from cow to can.
This gave manufacturers like Murray Goulburn – that buy milk directly from farmers, then process, distribute and sell it – an advantage.
“There is a big focus on safety and quality,” Mr Helou said. “China has come to the conclusion that it is not self-sufficient and is import dependent when it comes to infant nutrition. That’s great for us and in line with our strategy.”
But other companies, particularly those that use third party manufacturers to make their formula, are less clear on regulation criteria.
“The industry is in chaos,” said Jan Carey, the chief executive of the Infant Nutrition Council, which represents infant formula makers in Australia and New Zealand.
“We don’t actually know what’s going to happen. Our government and every government in the world is at the behest of the Chinese government.
“But at the same time, they are not going to feed a growing population and they do need the rest of the world to help them do that.”
Although China has significantly reduced the number of foreign importers, concerned parents still believe any overseas product is better than local brands.
A senior Australian dairy executive said he had been told busloads of Chinese tourists had cleaned out Coles and Woolworths of infant formula and taken it back home or sold it on websites such as Taobao.com, the Chinese equivalent of eBay.
“They are even wrapping Australian newspaper around the tin to prove that it is Australian,” the executive said.
“We can’t keep up with the demand.”
Ms Carey said Chinese parents had little choice but to use infant formula, with mothers reportedly returning to work two weeks after giving birth to their child to keep their jobs and progress to the middle class.
But Ms Carey questioned the marketing of infant formula in China, particularly the advertisement with the muscly half-naked man.
“There seems to be the perception in China that infant formula is as good if not better than breast milk,” she said, adding that such advertising was against the World Health Organisation and Infant Nutrition Council’s marketing codes.
“Breast milk is by far the best nutrition for infants, and for this reason the promotion and protection of breastfeeding is a key factor in ensuring infant health and wellbeing.”