Hong Kong is arresting more milk formula smugglers than drug traffickers

Not cocaine.
Not cocaine.
Image: AP Photo / Kin Cheung
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As a major transit and financial center connecting East and Southeast Asia, Hong Kong has always had a flourishing contraband industry. Now, a new kind of white powder is being trafficked. Five years after six babies were killed and over 300,000 sickened by Chinese-made formula, still mistrustful mainlanders are fueling an illicit trade in infant milk formula.

In almost two months, authorities have arrested more people for smuggling milk powder than for trafficking drugs in all of last year. Officials seized 8,841 kilograms of formula and arrested 879 people between March 1, when Hong Kong started limiting outbound travelers to two cans of formula each, and April 23. Almost half of that came from a syndicate that was hoarding about HK$1.1 million ($141,700) worth of milk powder.

By comparison, in 2012, Hong Kong arrested only 430 people for smuggling “dangerous drugs” worth HK$1 million, according to government data. (The most trafficked drugs in Hong Kong are ketamine, heroine, and cocaine.) However, the jump in milk formula smuggling also coincides with a fall in the amount of drugs being seized, presumably because there is less flowing through Hong Kong. The former British colony has been making a concerted effort to crack down on the narcotics trade. In 2011, Hong Kong was taken off the US list (paywall) of major drug transit centers.

So far, there’s no international ring of infant formula smuggling, but the market might be there. Chinese demand for formula is reaching other countries. Chinese students studying abroad are being recruited to buy and ship formula back to China, and Chinese tourists are buying stockpiles while abroad. Retailers in Germany, Britain and the Netherlands have started limiting sales of formula, prompting some families to start hoarding the product.