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Baby formula price rise hits poor families

Update: April, 07/2013 - 04:18
Finding the right formula: Consumers have difficulty meeting the rising cost of quality milk powder or formula for their children. — VNA/VNS Photo Huy Hung

The increase in price of imported milk powder and formula is a cause of concern for parents of babies who don't trust local products. It's also hurting Vietnamese producers who face stiff competition. Ha Nguyeăn reports.

Nguyeăn Tḥ Nguyet, a farmer in the central province of Nghe An, had to sell hundreds of eggs to buy one can of milk formula for her one-year-old child after milk prices surged in the local market.

"My child is always pale and sickly. Someone told me that she should drink milk to improve her health. But we are very poor, so we can't afford to buy it for her very often," said Nguyet.

The price increase also forced many of her neighbours to sell more poultry to buy milk powder for their children.

While rural farmers struggle, parents in big cities like Ha Noi and HCM City are frequently replacing domestic milk powder with imported products.

Breast is best: Mothers join a festival to promote breat feeding among mothers. Women are advised to delay weaning, particularly in face of the rising prices of milk formula. — VNA/VNS Photo Duc Tam

Ha Tḥ Minh in Ha Noi's Hai Ba Trung District said she chooses imported milk poweder – even though its price is double or triple that of local powdered milk – because she believes that imported milk powder and formula is more nutritious.

"The imported milk powder's origin is clear and quality controls are strict," Minh said.

Almost all her friends also gave their children imported milk powder, she said.

Minh's friend Le Thu Thuy said she tried to feed her six-month-old son various brands such as Meiji and Dumex, but he only wanted milk powder produced by Mead Johnson.

"I like milk produced by foreign companies because it's cleaner and has strict quality controls," Thuy said. "Most importantly, it would be difficult to fake. There are no lawsuits concerning fake imported milk in the local market, so local people believe that it's genuine."

She mourned, however, that the widespread desire for imported milk had led to a steep price hike.

Milk powder companies – both domestic and foreign – have increased milk prices three times in the last three months from 7-10 per cent.

The price of 900g of Ensure powdered milk, for example, has increased from VND605,000 to 658,000 while 800g can of XO powdered milk jumped in price from VND433,000 to 597,000.

Showing the way: A nutritionist guides young mothers on how to select and use milk formula for their children. — VNA/VNS Photo Kim Phuong

Nguyeăn Anh Tuan, deputy head of the Ministry of Industry and Trade's Price Management Department, said companies cited changes in product model and packaging to justify the price increases.

Bui Tḥ Huan in Ha Noi's Phuong D́nh Commune in Dan Phuong District raises the most dairy cows in the commune.

But Huan said she didn't dare to increase her dairy herd because the costs of grass and veterinary services have increased while the Quoc Te Milk Plant has paid the same amount for milk for three years.

Huan said her family plans to cut down its herd by the end of this year. Without doing so, they face severe losses.

Nguyeăn Minh Phong, an economic expert, said the milk purchasing price had not increased, but milk prices in the market had risen extremely high. This unreasonable situation had caused consumers severe losses and needed to be resolved.

At a recent on-line dialogue about the quality and price of milk in the Vietnamese market organised by Lao Dong newspaper, Ngo Minh Hai, deputy director of TH Food Chain Company, attributed the high prices to the fact that Viet Nam doesn't have a big domestic milk industry, and thus has to depend largely on imported materials.

"If Viet Nam uses modern technology to produce safe, fresh milk, I believe that that milk will defeat imported products," Hai said.

Currently, milk importers and distributors have invested a huge amount in advertising their items on TV and offering commissions to buyers at kindergartens, primary schools and hospitals.

"This practice has defeated local milk companies," said Hai.

Lai Tḥ Tuyet in Ha Noi's Tu Liem District said doctors often advised her to buy imported milk for her ninth-grade son to prepare him for his high school examinations in July.

So Tuyet saved money to buy imported milk. Although it was expensive, it was worth it because the beverage improved her son's health, she said.

Nguyeăn Tḥ Quynh Chi, head of a club of female consumers, said that while Viet Nam has several trade-mark milk companies, many local people still do not completely believe in their quality and hygiene. Local milk companies do not advertise heavily about proper storage methods to the stores that sell its products; Hoang Thuy Hoa in Ha Noi's Thanh Luong Ward said she had previously bought out-of-date items that caused her family diarrhoea and sickness.

"Milk producers should compensate buyers who purchase products not fit for consumption," said Hoa.

Helping hand: A nurse shows a mother how to breast feed her new-born baby. Experts are recommending breast feeding as best for the baby and more economical. — VNA/VNS Photos Thanh Vuơ

In Viet Nam, milk quality is controlled by five ministries: the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development's Quality Control Department of Farm Produce, the Industry and Trade Ministry's Market Management Department, the Ministry of Science and Technology's Quality Measurement Department, Ministry of Health's Food Sanitary and Safety Department and the Ministry of Finance's Custom Department.

When milk products are examined, each department often gives different results, making consumers confused, said Chi. But in the US milk for children is solely monitored by the US Department of Agriculture.

Dr Nguyeăn Tḥ Lam, deputy head of the Viet Nam Nutrition Institute, said many Vietnamese parents believe what they see in advertisements and consider foreign milk more nutritious.

"But parents should choose milk based on their child's specific health, physiology and taste - not on ads," the doctor said.

Many Vietnamese children are still malnourished, according to Lam, and rates of vitamin A deficiency and anaemia remain high. This meant that children needed to add more milk to their meals - but in a suitable way.

"Children between the ages of six and 14 should drink milk as a source of calcium so they can continue growing. Obese children should drink 300-400 ml of non-fat unsweetened milk every day," Lam advised, adding that malnourished children should drink 500-800ml of whole milk daily.

Taking advantage of the Vietnamese fondness for foreign milk, many smugglers have been importing milk of dubious origin into the country. These goods' prices are often cheaper than officially imported milk items because the smugglers evade taxes.

Lam said these items often have less protein than other milk products. Parents who give them to their children lose significant money while their children risk malnutrition.

Lam suggested that women should breast-feed for at least six months rather than bottle-feed.

While 70 per cent of rural women breast feed, the rate is only 30 per cent for their counterparts in urban areas, said Lam.

And about 29 per cent of children under five suffer from malnutrition, according to the Health Ministry.

Lam said that this number could be reduced to 15.6 per cent by the end of this year if mothers breast-fed and added necessary nutrients to their childrens' diets. Women in rural areas should plant gardens and raise pigs, chickens (both for meat and eggs) and fish.

Each meal should include rice, vegetables, fruits, meat or eggs and fish to ensure children have a balanced diet and continue to grow.

"By subsituting these foods for excessive milk, parents could save money and be less reliant on imported milk," said Lam

They should also use safe water and regularly clean their hands to ensure the safety of food for their children.

At Ha Noi's Nutrition Centre, training courses offer further advice on nutrition.

"We currently offer training services and nutrition consultations in remote and isolated areas free of charge," said Lam. — VNS

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