It would be hard to think of a more sensitive topic in China than infant formula. After the 2008 scandal in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese infants fell ill through drinking tainted baby milk, middle-class parents will go to any length – sometimes spending half or more of their monthly salary – to buy imported formula that they think is safe.
Doctors and nurses often urge new parents to start their newborns on imported formula, right from the maternity ward. But Chinese media have alleged that medical staff have been bribed to recommend one brand over another – potentially eroding trust that parents have in foreign brands.
Last week Dumex, the baby food brand owned by France’s Danone, said it was “shocked” at allegations aired on state television that the company bribed doctors and nurses to recommend its brand.
CCTV, the official broadcaster, quoted a former Dumex sales manager in the northern city of Tianjin claiming that the company pays hundreds of thousands of yuan each year to bribe staff in Tianjin hospitals to feed newborns Dumex brand infant formula.
Each doctor or nurse gets from a few hundred yuan to Rmb10,000 a month in such incentives, the report alleged.
“Dumex China pays great attention to and is extremely shocked by the CCTV report on Dumex’s promotion of [infant milk formula] product in hospitals in Tianjin. We will immediately launch an investigation into it,” Dumex said in a statement.
Hospitals are a big distribution point for infant formula in China, and Chinese media have reported that gaining preferential access to maternity wards may cost companies between Rmb200,000 and Rmb3m a year for each large hospital.
Additional reporting by Zhang Yan in Shanghai.