Food safety concerns relating to dairy ingredients originating from New Zealand in the recent past could potentially boost Irish-made baby food sales in China.

However, has Bord Bia and the Irish Government done enough to ensure the provenance of key ingredients in Irish produced baby food?

Infant formula consumption is increasing across the world. Such growth is being fueled by increased sales across developing markets, especially in Asia. A recent report published by Reuter’s noted that infant formula sales in China alone will double 2013 figures to reach US$31 (€24.5) billion by 2017.

Ireland has a strong tradition of infant formula production. Three of the world’s largest infant formula companies have extensive operations in Ireland.

Danone has two baby food plants in both Wexford and Macroom, Co. Cork. Abbott Nutrition produces infant formula in their plant in Cootehill, Co. Cavan, and Nestle has a plant in Askeaton, Co. Limerick.

To further endorse Ireland’s infant formula credentials, one of China’s largest baby-food companies has entered into a joint venture with Kerry Group to produce, package and export infant formula to China from Kerry’s factory in Charleville, Co. Cork.

One common misconception is that infant formula is made-up mostly of cow’s milk. This is not entirely true. Cow’s milk and human milk vary greatly in composition. Consequently, baby food manufacturers need to formulate products to mimic human milk, hence the name ‘infant formula’.

Cow milk contains double the protein levels of human milk, lower fat, less than three-quarters of the sugar levels, and more minerals.

Infant formula compositions have to be specifically formulated using various dairy ingredients in order to match the constituents of human milk. The formulations will also vary depending on the type of baby food product produced, for example zero-to-six months formula, six+ month, toddler and so on.

According to Niro, two main groups of humanized baby food powder are prevalent in the market place, as shown in the table.

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The introduction of the Origin Green quality assurance programme by Bord Bia should further strengthen the credentials of Irish baby food production and exports.

However, as shown in the product formulations above, whey and lactose constitute two of the key ingredients used in this production process.

And, between 2008 and 2013, the imports of lactose powders into Ireland increased from 12,628 tonnes to 49,707 tonnes per annum. At the same time whey imports increased from 17,630 tonnes to 25,325 tonnes.

This could raise questions about the provenance of Irish-made infant formula if imported whey and lactose powder is being used and the point of Irish dairy farmers partaking in an Origin Green programme.

Both Bord Bia and the Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney need to reassure Irish dairy farmers, supporting the Origin Green programme, that the processing companies involved in this programme are also playing their part.