'Breast is best' an unknown concept for many in China

SHIJIAZHUANG, China, Sept 17 (Reuters) - Zhang Lihong never considered that feeding her son Zhang Yangyi baby milk formula could have serious long-term health consequences by damaging his kidneys.

For her, a housewife from the northern Chinese city of Shijiazhuang, the adage that "breast is best" for a baby was an unknown concept.

"I thought it would be better for his growth to have milk powder," Zhang said, cradling her gently cooing son outside the headquarters of China's Sanlu Group, now at the centre of a scandal about toxic milk powder.

"I'll never feed it to him again," she added, waiting her turn to return the powder, which has already made more than 6,000 Chinese babies sick and killed three after it was contaminated with melamine, a compound often used to measure protein.

Experts have long recognised that breastfeeding is by far the best choice, by boosting, for example, baby immune systems. The U.N.'s Children's Fund (UNICEF) says it can dramatically cut child deaths in developing countries, and is a big supporter.

Multinationals who make powdered milk, such as Nestle, say they support breastfeeding. They defend giving babies infant formula as being much healthier than traditional alternatives like rice water.

Chinese people, due to changing lifestyles and a strong advertising push by some dairy companies, are increasingly choosing milk formula over breastfeeding, or stop early to switch to powdered milk.

"As we all know, young mothers these days face huge pressure from society. Because of work reasons, they often don't have enough milk of their own, so in our country the proportion of children fed baby formula is quite big," Chinese Health Minister Chen Zhu told a news conference on Wednesday.

China's breastfeeding rate is around 70 percent, and the government admits promotion efforts lag. In the United States, by contrast, the percentage of mothers who breastfeed their babies has reached the highest level on record, at about 74 percent.

Yet some companies make wild claims about their milk.

"For quite a while now infant formula companies have been making claims that we believe are not supportable by science. Quite often in East Asia the most appealing claims are they put ingredients in the milk that make the children smarter," said Dale Rutstein, UNICEF's China communications chief.

Wu Bixian, another Shijiazhuang mother, said she stopped breastfeeding when her son was four months old.

"It was to boost his nutrition," Wu said when asked why she had switched to milk powder. "I felt I couldn't give him enough nutrition myself and formula would be better than breast milk."

The Sanlu case is not the first time China has had problems with tainted milk powder, and it is the latest in a series of domestic and international scandals about toxic and unsafe food and products.

In 2004, at least 13 babies died in the eastern province of Anhui after drinking fake milk powder that had no nutrition.

Peter Dingle, an environmental toxicologist at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia, said he was mystified why milk powder was so popular in China.

"For the life of me, why are they feeding them milk? It's far from the best thing for babies," he told Reuters. "China's breast cancer rate is 1 percent and it is 13 percent in Australia. It's crazy to think that adopting a Western diet is to be of any benefit for kids." (Additional reporting by Tan Ee Lyn in Hong Kong; Editing by Nick Macfie)