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October 2017
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The underground business of Dutch baby milk powder


Charlotte, can you do me a favour? Please log into my friends’ WeChat account and post these pictures, make sure to put the location setting with it”. This was a message I got on WeChat, a Chinese social medium, from my Chinese cousin, Ruowang. At first I was confused, what was he talking about? He then sent me some account details and a series of pictures of Dutch baby milk powder, mostly from the brand Nutrilon. Ah, now I understood it, his friend was probably selling Dutch baby milk powder in China. He wanted me to upload the pictures on her account  with the GPS location setting, so that it seemed that she was in The Netherlands, buying the real product.

This underground business of Dutch milk has been going on for quite some time now. The product became very popular in China after a food safety incident happened with China’s own baby milk powder. In 2008, the toxic chemical melamine was found in the product, which caused 300,000 babies serious health problems and six babies died after they drank from it (the guardian, 2008). Of course, after that incident a lot of Chinese parents distrust Chinese baby milk powder and therefore they seek out to Europe, and especially The Netherlands to buy their milk. But the demand from China got so high that Dutch stores are now afraid that there will be a shortage in The Netherlands. Therefore there are restrictions of only buying 1 or 2 boxes at a time. However the demand is not declining, and people in China need to find ways to get the product. This happens from an underground business, they find parallel ways to get it.

But how do they do that? I am Dutch-Chinese myself, and from my personal experience I know that when you have relatives, like my aunt who has a baby, you can ask them to take some boxes for you. I asked my mother about it and how she does it. She said: “Because I can only buy one or two boxes from a store, I go to different supermarkets and drugstores in the city, but sometimes they tell me the product is out of stock but I think they keep it in their storage, I think it is because I am Chinese”. From this quote it is clear that The Dutch stores are careful with selling the product to prevent shortage. However this might could be experienced as racist for some Asian buyers.

I decided to speak to Lina Xu, the friend of my cousin who imports and sells baby milk powder from The Netherlands to China. I asked her what her method was. She said: “ I ask Chinese students who are going on exchange in The Netherlands, to buy the powder, and they send it through TNT post to me, and they earn money with that, around  5 euros per box. In China I can sell them for a higher price, per box I earn around 10 euros, in a month I earn around 500 euros, it depends”. Lina also told me that her clients approach her mostly on her WeChat account, because all the Dutch baby milk powder is sold online and never in the official stores. Taobao, which is the Chinese version of Ebay, is also a popular selling point.  A few years ago, people discovered a scam on Taobao, there was a seller who pretended to be from the official Nutrilon website. The website looked exactly like the European website except it was in Chinese, so people really thought it was the official website. After people discovered the product was fake, the website got closed down. She also told me that nowadays it is very common to buy Dutch baby milk powder, it is pretty easy now in China to get your hands on it, however the poorer people have to buy Chinese baby milk powder.

I was also interested in who and what kind of people these sellers were. According to Lina female run this business more than men, and they are mostly around 20 till 30 years old,  because according to Lina: “older people do not communicate well with younger students, they are also not that familiar with social media like younger people and therefore have less contacts as well”.

Because Lina told me she asks Chinese exchange students to buy the product for her, I spoke to Emma Feng, a Chinese exchange student currently studying at Erasmus University Rotterdam. One of the first reactions her friends said was: “Oh you are going to The Netherlands, you can get milk for us! You can export it and make a lot of money from it!”  I asked her if she thought about exporting baby milk but she said “I considered it, but I think it is too troublesome and time consuming, but If I need money I might do it”. So for many exchange students it is a common side job to consider. Apart from students there are also other contact persons in The Netherlands, who just live in The Netherlands and use this to earn a little extra money.

But of course if this underground business goes on, it will become a problem, Nutrilon is only allowed to produce a certain amount of products. This is not going to be enough to feed babies from both The Netherlands and China Therefore something has to change in China, perhaps European countries could help Chinese companies with producing safe milk and to create an positive image, to win back the trust, and of course the food safety laws need to be more strict. But Lina said “I don’t think this is ever going to change, nobody really trusts the milk anymore or wants to take risks after the tragedy, people are always going to find ways to get it and be safe”.


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Charlotte Ha

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