There is massive demand from Chinese parents for Australian baby formula brands.
CNN  — 

Australian police have broken up a criminal gang accused of stealing thousands of tins of baby formula worth one million Australian dollars ($720,000) from stores over the past year and shipping them for sale in China.

Six people, including four members of the same family, have been arrested on suspicion of involvement in the syndicate.

Last August, investigators raided two homes linked to the syndicate and seized 4,000 tins of baby formula, large quantities of vitamins, Manuka honey and 215,000 Australian dollars ($154,000).

Police believe the gang had run a lucrative operation for years, and made thousands of shipments of baby formula to China in the past 12 months, Daniel Doherty, New South Wales robbery and serious crime squad commander, told reporters Monday.

“Not only are (these people) making a quick dollar and disadvantaging the moms and dads of Australia, they are also literally taking baby formula out of the mouths of babes,” Doherty said.

Police estimate that half a dozen more people could be linked to the gang.

Busting the baby formula gang

The arrests happened over a six-month period.

Acting on a tip-off from retailers about the coordinated theft of baby formula and vitamins across Sydney, police arrested a 48-year-old woman in August last year, a 53-year-old man in December and a 29-year-old woman in January.

Most recently, a 31-year-old man was detained at Sydney International Airport on Saturday on his way back from China, where mothers are suspicious of the purity of domestic baby formula brands. He is due to appear in court on January 30.

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Police believe all four are members of the same family and were part of an organized syndicate receiving stolen products, including baby formula and health supplements, which were then sold on overseas.

Another two people, a 35-year-old man and a 42-year-old man, were arrested in November and December. Police allege they were actively involved in the organized theft of baby formula as part of the same syndicate. Five of the six arrested have been charged, police said.

Surrogate shoppers

Australian baby formula products are extremely popular with Chinese parents, who are still cautious about using domestic brands. In 2008, at least six babies died and tens of thousands fell ill due to milk powder tainted by harmful chemicals.

A vibrant daigou industry has flourished in Australia, in which surrogate shoppers buy foreign products and sell them to customers in China for up to double the price. The practice has fueled baby formula shortages in Australia at times, and long lines of shoppers scrambling for milk powder are common.

Some Australian stores, including Coles and Woolworths, have restricted purchases of baby formula to two tins per person to try to stop daigou shoppers buying up the stock at the expense of local parents.