Chinese dairy brands at the center of the country's latest food safety scandal face big hurdles luring back alarmed consumers seeking alternatives, according to a study released on Wednesday.
The telephone survey of 900 Chinese milk consumers found most will keep drinking the stuff but "have had their confidence in milk brands deeply shaken," according to All Media Count, a Beijing-based company that conducted the study.
Four children have died and many thousands have been made badly sick from melamine, a cheap compound that was added to milk to cheat quality checks.
Like protein, melamine is rich in nitrogen and was used by traders to disguise diluted or substandard milk.
The survey, completed in late September in Beijing, Shanghai and other parts of the country, found Sanlu Dairy, the producer of the tainted infant milk formula that set off the industry-wide scandal, was worst-hit by consumer anger.
"Half of Sanlu's former loyalists claim they will avoid the brand in future," said a summary of the study sent by e-mail.
"This is likely to be an insurmountable loss of trust ..."
The study indicated that Inner Mongolia Yili Industrial Group and Mengniu Dairy, two big dairy companies also found to have products tainted with melamine, now face angry consumers looking for other brands.
"Although only about one quarter of their loyal customers say they will avoid these brands in the future, many more of their customers say they are open to alternative milk brands," said the report.
Two-thirds of respondents who said they were previously loyal to Mengniu were "looking for alternatives," it said.
Michael Underhill, managing director at All Media Count, said Chinese consumers did not appear to have given up on dairy products and could return to some scandal-hit brands once their "sense of betrayal" abated.
But many appeared more open to competing brands not at the center of the scare, and would probably be less likely to switch once they have again settled on one, he added.
"There's this sense that the brand we cared about most is now the one that betrayed us most," said Underhill.
Executives from Yili, Mengniu and Bright Dairy Group apologized on television. And the government ordered all dairy products made before September 14, around when the melamine scandal broke, to be taken off shop shelves and tested.
But a constant stream of recalls and bans by export markets has served to keep consumers wary.
In the latest move,
"This is a precautionary measure," Department of Health spokesman Wang Je-chau said.
It was not clear if melamine in the crackers came from
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