More must be done to promote breastfeeding
It is a shame that infant milk formula is viewed as an essential food product in Hong Kong - but for some people here, it is. They want the government to ensure supplies by taking measures against the mainland shoppers and traders they blame for shortages. They have suggested bans, taxes and proof of citizenship as solutions. The anger and frustration is understandable; but it is misplaced.
For one thing, it has been shown time and again that there is no more healthy food for babies than breast milk. No formula has yet been produced that can match it for nourishment and preventing illness. Decades of research show breastfed children have lower rates of hospital admissions and medical problems like allergies, diarrhoea, ear infections and rashes. It is true that breastfeeding can be a challenge for working mothers, and milk powder is a ready option for those who cannot manage the admittedly challenging logistics of working and breastfeeding. Certainly, manufacturers also capitalise on parents' concerns about babies health with products that contain all manner of nutritional additives.
Whatever the reasons, it is true that milk formula has become an essential part of the diet of most of Hong Kong's infants. Indeed, Hong Kong has one of the world's lowest breastfeeding rates. A 2009 public hospital study of 1,417 mothers and infants found that while 63 per cent of babies were being breastfed after one month, the number had fallen to 26.9 per cent after the crucial first six months of life and just 12.5 per cent after a year - and even then, half of women were also using bottled milk.
The mainland seems to be following our lead on this form of feeding the more it develops. And given the scares on the mainland over milk tainted with the chemical melamine, it is hardly surprising that huge quantities of formula sold here under our strict rules and standards being taken back across the border.
The inevitable scarcity here of popular brands has led to the calls for the government to protect supplies. Among the measures that have been suggested are a tax on mainlanders who take formula through customs checkpoints, limiting the quantity that visitors can buy and requiring proof of residency when making purchases. Bans and limits have also been proposed for parallel traders, who are accused of being largely to blame for the shortages. This seems an overreaction. Hong Kong is a free port and proud of it - people should be able to buy and take home what they like. Fortunately, the market has stepped in. Three manufacturers have set up customer hotlines to help locate supplies. They have promised to home-deliver up to three cans of formula if it cannot be found in stores.
Mainland authorities have a key role to play, though. Confidence in goods and services there is low - a recent survey showed that almost 70 per cent of respondents did not trust the food supply. Hong Kong is a big beneficiary of the mistrust, as our packed shops show. So, even as manufacturers here capitalise on the soaring demand, it is up to the central government to toughen laws and enforcement to improve quality and stamp out fakes.
But there is also a wider matter that both governments need to improve - breastfeeding rates. The low level in Hong Kong is mostly due to a lack of community, workplace and family support. Hospitals are teaching the benefits to new mothers, but the message is quickly being lost as the rigours of hectic home and work lives kick in. For the sake of Hong Kong's overall health and well-being, breastfeeding programmes have to be boosted.