Shady formula

A BIT of dodgy tabloid journalism by one of Australia’s flagship current affairs programs has led to Chinese-Australians being unfairly demonised and subjected to racist attacks.

Viewers of Channel 9’s A Current Affair would be well familiar with its stories about Asian shoppers stripping supermarket shelves of baby infant formula – the show’s producers whip it out with regular monotony.

In the last 18 months ACA has broadcast “A Formula Crisis”, “Baby Formula Frenzy”, “Baby Formula Hero”, “Baby Formula Win” and “Formula Scramble”, all along the same theme.

• ACA’s stories about infant formula shortages aren’t covered by industry regulations restricting advertising of the products. The program sure does pump them out regularly.

“We’ve seen the empty shelves and the trolleys piled high at the checkout, but the baby formula trade is now in overdrive,” reads the show’s veteran anchor Tracy Grimshaw in Baby Formula Frenzy.

“We’ve found suburban homes used as powdered-milk warehouses, leaving mothers with hungry babies angry.”

But ACA fails to mention in any of its stories that the biggest suppliers of Australian infant formula to the Chinese market – and by a very large margin – are the Australian-owned supermarket giant Woolworths and pharmacy retailer Chemist Warehouse.

Those sales were worth millions of dollars to the big Australians and would surely have dented their ability to fill local shelves, so how did A Current Affair miss this important detail?

Limit

Perhaps it’s because Woolworths is one of Channel 9’s biggest advertisers.

In fact, a cynic might wonder whether ACA is running a protection racket for Woolies: It’s last story on the issue “Formula Crisis” aired in late October, a fortnight before China’s AU$61 billion “Singles Day” and just as Woolies would have been holding back stock from local shelves in preparation for that extraordinary one-day shop-a-thon.

In fact, Woolies gave ACA a “statement” to accompany the story which noted it had just reintroduced a two-tin limit per customer following a review “with our key suppliers” and would monitor on-shelf availability.

Nowhere in Woolies’ statement did it note its own involvement in the Chinese market.

• Amanda’s had enough

Perth mum Amanda (Ying Fei) Chen, who’s daughter attends a Bibra Lake primary school, has been selling formula to friends and clients in China through Facebook and the Chinese equivalent WeChat since 2015.

Her first sale was just two tins of formula, but now her annual turnover is around $500,000.

Ms Chen says A Current Affair’s one-sided reporting has left her being targeted nearly every time she buys formula.

“Everyone hates the Chinese shopper and people look at you like you’re are going to steal the formula,” Ms Chen told the Herald.

“At one stage I was nearly attacked by a teen, but I just asked them to calm down.”

Just last week she was verbally attacked by a manager at Woolworths in Cockburn who threatened to have her turfed out by security guards, even though she’s breaking no law.

In fact, she was given the green light by the Australian Taxation Office which went over her business with a fine-toothed comb when she registered to become one of the first Australian exporters to the Daigou market.

Daigou is a huge trade system where overseas buyers act as agents for Chinese consumers for goods they’d be unable to access or afford at home.

“It was a new one for the ATO, so they had to decide how to deal with it,” she says.

“They should be proud of the market we opened, not kicking us out.

“This should be a good news story – this great opportunity for Australian businesses that have been opened up.

“Since last year, the company that makes A2 has tripled its output.”

Ms Chen says she’s regularly been told to “go back where you come from” and says other Australian-Chinese friends have experienced racial taunts.

That caught the attention of WA’s acting commissioner for equal opportunity John Byrne who called the behaviour “deplorable and not consistent with our harmonious multicultural society in Australia”.

“If a person is subjected to racial slurs in public outside the areas of work, accommodation or education in Western Australia, it is considered racial vilification which must be dealt with under the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 through the Australian Human Rights Commission,” Dr Byrne told the Herald.

The commission itself operates under WA’s 1984 Equal Opportunity Act, which limits him to dealing with complaints about racism in the workplace, accommodation or education institutions.

Daigou

“It is unlawful under the Equal Opportunity Act 1984 in Western Australia to refuse someone goods and services because of their race, or to give them less favourable while receiving goods and services based on their race,” Dr Byrne said.

Chinese demand for overseas infant formula was sparked by a 2008 scandal where local milk products were adulterated with the chemical melamine, leading to the deaths of six babies and the hospitalisation of another 54,000. Dozens of companies were implicated and desperate parents were prepared to pay huge prices for clean overseas products.

• Woolies’ online Tmall shop targeting the Chinese market: of the six products on its home page, three are infant formula; and there’s no limit on what you can buy.

Chinese visitors to Australia and crews from Chinese merchant ships soon cottoned on to a potential market and stocked up before heading home, while shortly after the online Daigou market took hold.

Ms Chen said it was easy to see why Chinese parents were so keen on the Australian products.

“There used to be a single child policy in China, so you had to treat your child like a princess.

“In China it’s always grey; it used to be paradise but now you never see blue sky and there’s always pollution, so when the Chinese mummy sees the blue skies and beaches of Australia, she believes it will be clean.”

No restrictions

The interest did lead to some local shortages and supermarkets imposed limits, but by 2016 the market was still growing and Woolworths decided it was time to tap in.

It launched its own Chinese site on Tmall, a Chinese-language retail website with over 500 million monthly active users.

On its home page, three of the six featured products are infant milk formula.

There are no restrictions on how many consumers can purchase.

Another benefit for Woolies, Chemist Warehouse and formula manufacturers to come from A Current Affair’s stories is that it helps get around a self-regulated restriction on advertising infant formula, which the industry adopted under pressure from the government over fears they would undermine breast feeding rates. Editorial stories, even ones ramping up fears of shortages, wouldn’t be covered under the code.

When the Chook contacted A Current Affair to get its side of the story, we had a comedic encounter worthy of the program itself.

After getting through to the production team and explaining we were looking for someone to comment, we were put on hold while, apparently, reporter Laura Turner was rustled up.

But something suddenly went wrong with the hold and it became clear no one was looking for Ms Turner: “Bloody idiots! Everyone knows [Woolies] sell online, but it’s not the same as stripping the shelves,” whined the staffer with a thick Strine accent.

“I might just tell them to send her an email…” she said before the line became too crackly to hear. After discovering she’d inadvertently admitted ACA had deliberately withheld that information, the staffer asked us to email one of the producers with our questions.

She refused to provide her name and we never heard back from the producer.

But, armed with her comments, we took to the streets of Freo to find out if viewers really were aware of Woolies’ involvement, or whether the anti-Chinese message was too strong.

The results of our mini survey were no surprise; no one knew about Woolies, and about half volunteered that ACA hadn’t much credibility in the first place.

by STEVE GRANT

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