People frantically scouring supermarkets, buying up all the boxes of product they can find – it sounds like a society preparing for some kind of apocalypse.
Weirdly, the only thing they’re hoarding is baby formula.
The situation was most starkly illustrated in a photo widely shared online after being posted by someone named AnneMaree Chapman to the Woolworths Facebook page.
Liked by over 6000 people at the time of writing, the picture depicted a convoy of shoppers in a Melbourne store buying trolleys full of A2 Platinum Formula, leaving another to guard the remaining couple of boxes.
“We are in a formula shortage and you are allowing this,” the person wrote.
“These people bought ALL of this A2 platinum formula … ALL OF IT!!!!”
The photo has been reposted several times to the Woolworths page and similar posts have depicted shortages elsewhere. Each time, the company responded with an assurance that a “strict limit of eight tins per customer” has been imposed.
Infant Nutrition Council CEO Jan Carey said the surge in demand was connected with a holiday in China, where already huge demand for Australian baby formula surges further.
“A lot of the spike [in demand] is due to it being a special day in China on the 11th November. They give many gifts and often that might be formula,” Ms Carey told The New Daily.
Known as Singles Day, the holiday is the retail equivalent of Boxing Day in Australia. It is consistently the busiest day of global online shopping.
Demand for Australian baby formula has been growing in China ever since the 2008 scandal that saw hundreds of thousands of babies poisoned by melamine in local baby milk products, leaving Chinese people to look overseas.
A grey market has gradually established itself, with individuals purchasing baby formula in Australia and posting it to China where it can sell for as much as $100 a tin – a dramatic mark-up, particularly when considering the average wage in China sits well below Australia’s.
Concerns have been raised that babies with special dietary needs will miss out, and that Chinese-Australian parents are being vilified for buying formula for their own children.
Ms Carey said it was concerning that Australian parents were not able to get the products they needed, and noted that New Zealand had experienced the same problem before the government imposed regulations that forced vendors to sell a maximum of four cans per customer.
She downplayed suggestions the Australian government should intervene in a similar way, however, saying many retailers were imposing their own store limits.
“I’m not sure regulation is needed. It’s developing a strategy – companies increasing supply when they can, which is hard to do overnight,” Ms Carey said.
The consumer watchdog, the ACCC, is seeking feedback on a 10-year industry self-regulation plan.
Australian National University associate professor Julie Smith told the ABC the high demand for baby formula does not mean such products are worth purchasing.
“The health authorities in Australia and elsewhere are very clear that firstly, infants should be breast fed if you want optimal health, but beyond 12 months it’s also very clear that children are very capable of growing up on ordinary cow’s milk or breast milk, there is no need at all for these toddler formulas,” Assoc Prof Smith said.
The academic expressed concern that the excessively high nutrient levels in baby formula promote obesity, and said Australia’s self-regulated baby formula industry could represent a health risk to Chinese babies.
“The fact that most of the majority of the product is going to China is a massive concern in terms of the public health in China.”