CANBERRA -- The Turnbull Government has moved to address the crisis in the supply of Australian baby formula, with a spike in demand from China not abating and reports of large pallets of stock being walked out of shops.
The Minister assisting the Minister for Trade Richard Colbeck has started talking short-term solutions with big retailers, including Coles and Woolworths, in bid to find an industry solution to the shortage.
It comes as the Agriculture Department urges members of the public to report suspected illegal commercial exports to it for investigation.
“There is obviously an immediate problem now,” Colbeck told The Huffington Post Australia. “I am talking to as many people as possible.”
“If you are a mum who is looking to get infant formula for your baby, there is no question that that would be an emotional thing.
“I want to provide a solution that is actually going to provide the product availability to the customers here locally.”
Chinese buyers and profiteers have been reported wiping out Australian shelves, leaving new parents to scrounge for solitary tins while supermarkets and pharmacies heavily ration supplies.
There have been problems in rationing and a particular spike in demand over the past fortnight.
Colbeck, who is a former Parliamentary Secretary for Agriculture, is not revealing his proposals publicly just yet and he says the industry has already been working on its own ideas, but the Minister does not back suggestions to stock pile infant formula in Australia or to follow Hong Kong and New Zealand in imposing export limits on of formula at the Australian border.
“Well look the Chinese already have import limits in place,” he told HuffPost Australia. “That is a 10-kilogram import limit.”
“What is occurring is there are very creative measures being taken to get around those limits.
“So if a supermarket were to halve the purchase limit, people will just send in twice as many people.”
The Minister believes the industry needs to grow the market in the long term and he said it is a compliment that Chinese consumers, and those from other nations, want Australia’s high quality, safe product.
The problem all began back in 2008 when a tainted baby formula scandal in booming China caused a number of deaths and led to hundreds of thousands of others to fall ill.
Despite the history and the demand for quality Australian product, the consumer group Choice says the industry has been blindsided.
“We have seen people clearing entire shops of pallets before it has even been unpacked and put on shelves," Choice spokeswomen Kate Browne told HuffPost Australia.
“It is incredibly distressing for a parent to be visiting 20, 30 stores just to access basic sustenance for a young baby.”
“(Other parents) say they have systemically called up to 20 stores to see if there is stock.”
No Australian baby is doing without food due to the formula shortage, but it has made life difficult for many families.
“I feel there is a duty of care on the retail, manufacturer or government level to ensure there is enough supplies in the country to service parents,” Browne said.
“When we are talking about babies under 12 months, particularly babies who are exclusively formula fed, not being able to access formula or the brand of formula to use is a huge issue.”
“It is not an inconvenience. It actually is a health issue.”
Choice’s Kate Browne predicts the Government can’t depend on retailers forever and may soon have to follow Hong Kong and New Zealand.
“Potentially that is what we need to look at going down the track, anything else is a stock gap measure,” Browne said.
“I don’t think it is realistic for retailers to have to enforce it. That is really problematic.”
The Minister assisting the Minister for Trade expects to be able to move on the issue shortly, after further discussions with retailers.
“I don’t think it is necessarily in anyone’s benefit to start getting into is it a supply problem verses whether it is a supermarket problem,” Colbeck said.
“We don’t want to be intervening in markets where we don’t need to, but I made the phone calls, put the suggestions, they told me what they were doing, recognising they had an issue to manage as well within their own businesses.
“They are obviously understanding that there are some issues that they have got to manage.”