Parents warned on milk formula
Lo Wei, Emily Tsang and Jennifer Ngo
Hong Kong health chiefs have urged parents not to feed their babies two brands of Japanese milk formula after they were found to lack the vital nutrient iodine.
The government is offering free check-ups for babies who have been fed the Wakodo and Morinaga brands to see if they suffer from iodine deficiency, which can harm the thyroid gland and affect brain function.
The warning comes after tests on 14 infant formula products found that the two brands, if used as suggested on their labels, provided a daily iodine intake lower than the amount suggested by the World Health Organisation.
Four other brands were below world trade standards but within the WHO levels.
Announcing the findings yesterday, Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man estimated that about 1,000 babies had been fed the two brands of formula, designed for infants under six months.
'Further studies are needed to confirm whether this finding proves that the babies' health will be affected,' Ko said.
'We are not sure whether this will lead to a problem in neurological development in babies. In fact, most likely, the risk is rather low.'
Shops selling the two brands - including City'super, which sells Morinaga - were taking them off their shelves yesterday.
Baby products supplier Baby Matrix Company said all orders had been halted until further notice.
Iodine deficiency can lead to irregular production of thyroid hormones, leading to a decreased intelligence quotient and hypoplasia - underdevelopment of a tissue or organ - paediatricians say.
Dr Hon Kam-lun, professor of paediatrics at Chinese University, said: 'If a severe shortage continues for three weeks, it's possible that permanent damage could be done to the brain, which could undermine brainpower permanently.'
But he said a short-term shortage would not cause serious problems and could be resolved simply by taking iodised salt.
Symptoms of iodine deficiency included an enlarged thyroid gland, and Hon advised parents to take their children for a check-up if they displayed abnormal development. He said food-related iodine deficiency was rare in Hong Kong infants and he had never dealt with any cases himself.
Ko called on parents to stop feeding the two brands of formula to their babies and to switch to other brands or breastfeeding as a 'precautionary measure'.
The Department of Health will provide blood tests at 10 maternal and child health centres from tomorrow for babies aged one to eight months who have been fed either of the two brands. Registration starts today.
The survey by the Centre for Food Safety began in May and results were obtained on Monday. It is part of a large-scale study in which the contents of formula for older babies will also be analysed.
The Meiji, Snow Brand Smart Baby, Physiolac and Frisco brands were found to have iodine below the standards of the international food standards-setting body Codex, but met WHO standards.
The WHO says babies should consume 15 micrograms of iodine per kg of body weight a day. Those consuming less than 5mcg per kg of body weight may see their thyroid function affected, Centre for Food Safety consultant Dr Philip Ho Yuk-yin said.
Using Wakodo as recommended would provide 2.3mcg to 3.8mcg a day, while for Morinaga the amount would be 3.4mcg to 6.7mcg.
Japan has no legal requirements for iodine content in formula milk.
Health centre controller Dr Gloria Tam Lai-fan said Japanese formula might have lower iodine content because Japanese women had a higher content in their bodies, the country's water had higher iodine levels and their breastfeeding rate was higher.
One grandmother who went to a Japanese shop to stock up on formula yesterday, said she would take her two-year-old grandson, who had been drinking Wakodo, for a blood test. She said the child had not shown any health problems so far.
On the internet forum Baby Kingdom, several users said they were worried by the findings.
The amount of iodine per 100kcal in Abbott Similac, the highest of the 14 tested brands. Wakodo and Morinaga had 1.2mcg and 2.4mcg