Of expensive infant formula

By: Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Several of my Brazilian friends who have babies have complained to me of the high price of infant formula, especially as some of their children are allergic to lactose and therefore have to buy special hypoallergenic formula that is even more expensive than regular formula.

All of their complaints came back to me this week when I read that the Saudi Ministry of Commerce and Industry has launched an investigation into alleged price fixing by the major foreign suppliers of infant formula in the Kingdom after alleged “synchronized” price hikes.

The Saudi infant formula market is worth around SR1.38 billion a year. “Through visits to 10 offices in Riyadh and Jeddah, where they collected statements and confiscated documents, officials claim to have uncovered various violations relating to ‘marketing procedures, administrative decisions, agreements and contracts,’” according to media reports.

All of this comes on the heels of foreign infant formula manufacturers being investigated last year in China and Vietnam for alleged price fixing. The Chinese government said that formula makers “are believed to have manipulated and raised the price of baby formula in the China market.” They were also accused of retaliating against retailers who resisted raising their prices by cutting off their supplies or delaying deliveries. According to the New York Times, foreign milk powder manufacturers have a 60 percent share of China’s market after the 2008 scandal in which Chinese made infant formula was found to be contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine, killing six infants and making 300,000 children ill. The Chinese government finally fined one local and five foreign infant formula makers, $108 million for price-fixing. This forced many manufacturers to cut their formula prices in China.

I welcome the aggressive ministry probe into price-fixing of infant formula, as I imagine so do the hundreds of thousands of parents in Saudi Arabia who have to buy infant formula regularly to feed their babies.

Our maid Silvania, who is still breast-feeding her 15-month old son but also gives him infant formula in his bottle, says that a tin of formula lasts at most two weeks. So just do the math of how much it costs to feed a baby every month just in terms of milk. And it costs a mother much more to feed her infants if she is not able to also breast feed them.

Infant formula is not the only thing more expensive in Brazil than in the Gulf. Disposable diapers are also much more expensive here, and once again Silvania drove us mad asking us for them during the first six months of her son’s life. My mother told her to use cloth diapers made of white cotton, which can be washed and used many times. Our maid never followed our advice, perhaps because she thought that using disposable diapers was socially more desirable. She positively looked down her nose at cloth diapers, which is a pity for the environment, which is not able to digest all of the dirty, plastic-lined dirty diapers that take centuries to decompose.

Luckily governments in developing countries were able to institute large-scale public education campaigns that taught the advantages of breastfeeding over using infant formula. Breast milk provides important nutrients and immunity-boosting substances that are not found in infant formulas. Silvania is a shining example of this. Now if these same governments could only convince poor women that cloth diapers are better for their pockets and the environment than disposable ones, we would be getting somewhere!

The writer is a Saudi journalist based in Brazil.






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