China's surging infant formula market providing rich pickings for MNCs

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Major global infant formula firms are continuing to thrive in the Chinese market.
Major global infant formula firms are continuing to thrive in the Chinese market.
China's status as a sales powerhouse for major international infant nutrition firms has been underlined, with both Abbott and Danone reporting solid growth in the country.

This follows a turbulent couple of years, during which regulatory changes affected the market and distorted pricing, especially for bigger players​.

However, Danone recently reported that its global sales rose 10.8% year-on year to hit US$7.3bn in Q1, with healthy performance in China one of the main drivers behind the increase.

Thanks largely to an H2 2016 peak in births, alongside market share gains, the firm's infant formula — part of its Early Life Nutrition range — brought in like-for-like sales growth of above 50% in China.

At the same time, the expansion of its Aptamil Platinum brand of infant nutrition in the ultra-premium segment, buoyed its positive performance in the country.

Early Life Nutrition comes under Danone's specialised nutrition business, which recorded 14.5% year-on-year sales growth worldwide in the first quarter of this year. This included a 5.6% increase in volume and a 8.9% rise in value.

In Danone's press release announcing its Q1 results, chairman and CEO Emmanuel Faber said, "I am very pleased with the strong results we have achieved in the first quarter."

He added that Danone had progressed further in developing a "more sustainable platform of growth"​, and in the "premiumisation" ​of its ​Early Life Nutrition offering in China.

In late February, Danone opened its Precision Nutrition D-Lab​ in Singapore to facilitate the development of its next generation of infant nutrition products.

Abbott also did well, with 16.7% year-on-year global sales growth to US$7.4bn in Q1. Its international sales (outside the US) were reported at US$4.7bn, up 17.6% from the previous year.

Its global paediatric and adult nutrition sales accounted for 23% of its total worldwide sales, rising 7% from the previous year to reach US$1.76bn. The firm's international nutrition sales, led by strong growth in several Asian countries — including Greater China — increased 9.5% year-on-year to US$998m.

In particular, its global paediatric nutrition sales rose 7.3% to US$994m, with international sales comprising approximately 55% at US$546m, up 10.5% from the previous year.

Cautiously confident

Abbott's chairman and CEO Miles D. White said, "Sales growth this quarter was balanced across our paediatric and adult nutrition businesses. Internationally, performance improved across several countries, and we continued to see stable market conditions in China, following the implementation of new food safety regulations at the beginning of this year."

Despite this, he added: "For the long term, I'd be cautious about setting expectations higher than low- to mid-single digits, because markets are not growing at as high a rate as they have historically.

"I believe some emerging markets still have hefty growth opportunities, but overall, it's probably still a low- to mid-single digit business from a growth standpoint."

He said Abbott had responded well to the regulatory changes in China​ and that he hoped the company would do even better, but preferred to rein in his positive outlook.

"Right now, if we're able to see steady growth in this business at this rate, or even sequential improvement going forward, that would be pretty good.

"I wouldn't want to predict (growth to be) a whole lot faster or higher — I'm happy it's stable and headed north."

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