Hong Kong customs officials arrested 45 people late last week on charges of smuggling baby milk formula into mainland China, after a new emergency law took effect on March 1st which limits passengers to no more than two cans (1.8 kilograms) of the product. From the Los Angeles Times:
The new Hong Kong law stipulates a penalty of up to $64,500 and two years in prison for anyone convicted of breaking the milk powder export limit.
At Hong Kong’s international airport, the public address system informed passengers that they were not permitted to carry out more than two cans of powdered milk formula.
Mainland traders are known in Hong Kong as “locusts,” for stripping store shelves of milk powder and other consumer goods for resale across the border. The booming milk powder trade in Hong Kong was fueled by fears on the mainland that domestically produced baby formula is tainted with industrial chemicals.
Rowdy demonstrations by Hong Kong residents protesting the cross-border consumer-goods trade last year helped turn milk powder into a powder keg threatening relations between Hong Kong and the mainland. Hong Kong parents complain that they are unable to find baby formula for their own children.
The accused included 26 Hong Kong residents, 18 mainlanders and one person with a foreign passport, according to the South China Morning Post. A number of tainted baby formula scandals have hit China in recent years – thousands of children fell ill with kidney problems in 2008 from milk powder tainted with the industrial chemical melamine – and mainland mothers have since turned to places such as Hong Kong and even Australia for their baby food. More recently, a cancer-causing element was found in samples of a mainland dairy company last year.
China’s health minister called the smuggling of infant formula a “temporary problem” in Beijing on Monday, according to the Financial Times. Checking in from the sidelines of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) on Sunday, the South China Morning Post noted a mixed bag of opinions on the issue among the members of China’s top political consultative body:
Wang Xudong, head of the School of Information Technology at Nanjing University of Chinese Medicine, lashed out at Hong Kong’s measures, calling them strict.
“The Hong Kong government is way out of line…[It] only cares about Hong Kong’s babies, not at all for the ones on the mainland. [It thinks] it isn’t enough to only seize milk powder, but even imprison the carriers,” Wang said.
Other CPPCC members called for a serious crackdown on food safety violators after an seemingly endless stream of scandals in China. They said food safety issues were at the core of the milk power controversy.
Three-time CPPCC member Pan Qinglin from Tianjin urged heavier punishment on offenders. “I suggest imposing the death penalty to [foodmakers who put people in danger]… [Food fabrication] has damaged the image of the Chinese Communist Party,” he said.