China food fears driving baby milk formula smuggling

(CBS News) From thousands of dead pigs floating in a Shanghai river to a crime ring busted selling more than $1 million worth of lamb that was actually rat meat, food safety is on the minds of people in China.

And parents there, CBS News has learned, are worried about their babies' formula. Fears over the safety of Chinese-brand milk formula have been mounting for years, CBS News' Seth Doane reports. In fact, recently one Chinese brand was recalled after traces of mercury were found in it. So now, those who can afford to, are turning abroad.

Recently, Doane met Zhang Yu, 29, who has an 11-month-old son. Yu lives in China and works for a Danish company. Her colleagues' overseas business trips now double as milk runs as she says she is trying to ensure her son's safety. Her friends and colleagues bring boxes of milk back for her in their luggage.

"I'd like to choose the safe way," Zhang said. "I cannot trust the milk - at least now."

Trust in Chinese-brand milk formula has been eroding since 2008. That's when six infants died after drinking milk contaminated with melamine, a toxic chemical used in plastics.

After the scandal, food-safety regulations were revised. But we met another mother, Qianqian, who bought the milk brands contaminated with melamine back in 2008. Today, she's not taking any chances with her 2-month-old.

She spent $1,800 when she was in the U.S. to buy enough to last a year-and-a-half. She said of her return to China from the U.S. -- in which she had 19 suitcases of milk formula, "I heard the Americans checking my luggage," she said. "They were whispering 'Why are Chinese all so crazy'."

But, Qianqian, says she's not crazy and points to Beijing's polluted skies as proof. Qianqian said, "When I was traveling in the U.S. I saw some cow ... living under blue skies, breathing clean air an eating clean grass. Milk from cows like this may be healthier than my (own) milk."

Foreign milk brands cost more than double the Chinese equivalent. In Hong Kong, where prices are lower, there's a foreign milk formula shortage. So, in February, officials placed an export limit on milk.

Since the limits were put in place, more than a thousand people have been arrested for smuggling milk -- more than double the number arrested smuggling drugs in all of last year.

The China Dairy Industry Association conducted tests and assured Chinese that the "quality of domestic baby milk powder is stable and reliable."

But, that hasn't eased Zhang's fears: "In China, normally one family only have one child ... he's really important for us and we just want to give him the better way. ... Not only the milk -- all the other thing we try to give him the best way."

So for these Chinese mothers, that means avoiding Chinese milk.

Foreign brands of milk formula are available for sale in mainland China in stores, but even those foreign-brands are often sourced or manufactured in China, so many of the families CBS News spoke with said they would not feel comfortable buying those foreign brands in China.

Watch Seth Doane's full report above.