Watchdog concerned over free baby milk

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 October, 2004, 12:00am

Giving away formula at hospitals may limit mothers' choices, warns professor

The free provision of infant formula to public hospitals by makers has been questioned by the Consumer Council, for discouraging breast feeding and giving a marketing advantage to the formula supplier.

The council is a staunch advocate of breast feeding.

It believes the Hospital Authority's Infant Formulae Rotation System, under which producers exclusively provide their product free to a hospital for one or two months, may be blunting efforts to discourage use of breast milk substitutes.

The vice-chairman of its publicity and community relations committee, Ching Pak-chung, also warned that the practice could be in breach of the World Health Organisation's code on marketing of breast milk substitutes.

'Our concern is that it limits the choice of the mother,' Professor Ching said of the exclusivity of supply. 'Unless they purchase their own, most of them will choose the one that is supplied.

And the council was concerned that the provision of free formula 'is not in line with the internationally accepted practice of not encouraging the use of formula rather than breast milk'.

As well as being rich in essential nutrients, breast milk contains antibodies that fortify an infant's immune system against disease.

'It remains the most important food in the first year [of life] and continues to be of benefit beyond this age, physically, mentally and emotionally,' Professor Ching said.

A spokeswoman for breastfeeding support group La Leche League, Sarah Hung, said Hong Kong was slowly coming around to the benefits of breast milk.

'Things are improving,' she said. 'About 20 years ago, the breast feeding rate was low in Hong Kong, about 20 per cent, whereas now it is about 60 per cent.'

Figures from the Hospital Authority breastfeeding promotion committee show the number of mothers breast feeding upon discharge from public hospitals has risen from 49 per cent in 2000 to 58.3 per cent last year. The number of those still breast feeding a month after discharge also rose, from 51.5 per cent to 73.8 per cent.

'Having said that, there is still room for improvement,' Ms Hung said. 'Having the formula readily available and being pushed as the norm makes it that much more difficult. The message that breast is best is getting across, but I do not think people are getting all the information they need ... and that is where the problem is.'

An authority spokeswoman last night said it was the government's responsibility to provide options for new mothers and their children, and that the rotation scheme saved public funds for other uses.

'But it is the authority's policy to encourage new mothers to breastfeed their babies,' she said.