Baby formula regulations applauded in HK

Updated: 2012-11-21 09:20

By Li Likui in Hong Kong (China Daily)

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Code to promote breast-feeding and safeguard infants nutrition

A Hong Kong government proposal to ban all forms of advertising on baby formula for infants under three years old has won the backing of some stakeholders on Tuesday during a joint meeting of a Legislative Council panel, despite some reservations concerning the voluntary and no-naming rule, which means no violator's name will be publicised in case of a complaint.

The proposal - The Hong Kong Code of Marketing and Quality of Formula Milk and Related Products, and Food Products for Infants & Young Children - is currently under public consultation until the end of the year. The code's mandate is to contribute to the protection of breast-feeding and provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants aged 36 months or below. The code, which is voluntary for milk powder makers to join, is seen as an interim measure prior to related legislation.

The code is to introduce a monitoring mechanism, without naming the violators, to deal with complaints concerning the case of non-compliance.

The Hong Kong Committee on Children's Rights described the code as "a step in the right direction".

Despite the optimism, a major concern was the effect of the code under its no naming rule and voluntary basis. The committee urged the government to move quickly to implement the code in legislation with appropriate penalties and demands for transparency.

Nelson Edmund Anthony Severn, professor in paediatrics of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, called the code "long overdue but strongly welcomed".

Severn said benefits of breast-feeding are diluted by aggressive and misleading advertisements by formula companies.

However, voicing objection to the code, the Hong Kong Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association said that the voluntary code will create confusion for consumers when some producers obey the code and others don't. The association also accused the ban on advertising as "over-regulation" and contradictory to the free market economy, which denies consumers' right to access information.

Also in opposition is Mead Johnson Nutrition, a leading baby formula maker which has promised not to advertise formula for children under six months old. The company, among several manufacturers voicing objections, said the government is blaming the wrong source for the low breast-feeding rate in Hong Kong and called the code "hastily" done.

Though various groups voiced comments over the voluntary code, another proposal commenced consultation on Tuesday - Legislative Proposals Relating to Formula Products and Foods Intended for Infants and Young Children under the Age of 36 Months in Hong Kong - is seemingly non-contentious on Tuesday's panel meeting. The proposal stipulates that certain levels of ingredients and nutrition are to be included in formula products for babies under 36 months old and that those ingredients must be revealed on the product labels.

The government is expected to bring the measure into law. Considering that the industry needs time to adjust to the new legislative proposal, the government will impose a grace period before final implementation. As for the legislation concerning misleading advertisements, the government will deal with the issue later, owing to its complexity.

The Center for Food Safety conducted a scrutiny of 63 infant formulas from May to September and found the amount of iodine in seven of them is insufficient.