Infant formula crackdown a pointless overreaction

Selina Chow says infant milk limit is an overreaction and protectionist

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 March, 2013, 3:00am

I arrived back in Hong Kong the other day, and was walking through the arrival hall of our busy airport, when an official woman's voice blared out from the loudspeakers of the passenger terminal.

She was warning the public that Hong Kong is now enforcing the law to penalise anyone who attempts to leave the city with more than two cans of milk powder.

The message was long and thorough, spelling out the terms in detail. It made sure everybody was informed that any guilty party could be fined up to HK$500,000 and jailed for up to two years.

On its own, the announcement was quite amusing. If it were in any other international airport of any other major world city, say Singapore or London, one would probably be laughing at the fuss they are making of such a minor act, whatever the justification. But this is Hong Kong, our city!

And perhaps I was particularly sensitive, having been chairwoman of the Tourism Board, spending years trying to promote Hong Kong as the world's ultimate shoppers' paradise.

It made me wonder what the present chairman or his successor can say when they want to further Hong Kong's reputation in this regard.

Should they add a line at the bottom of the TV advertisement "Shopping in Hong Kong" that says "Shop till you drop in Hong Kong, but beware: no milk powder"? Or should it be "Beware: taking more than two cans of milk powder out of Hong Kong may land you in jail"?

It's true that mothers of young babies were cornered into a panic when two brands of the most popular brands of milk powder were out of stock.

Our babies were never deprived of food, but they were deprived of their parents' idea of the best food. But what is the cause of this? And who is responsible?

The worst infant milk formula shortage occurred just before the Lunar New Year. Shenzhen visitors came here to shop for themselves, but they were also stocking up on gifts for their homecoming holidays during the spring holiday.

It seemed that the suppliers were not prepared for this surge in demand, and it provided an opportunity for some retailers and parallel exporters to cash in. This aggravated the situation for local consumers, and naturally caused an uproar.

The sentiment within the community was such that the government had to intervene, and it did. It assisted the Shenzhen customs to clamp down on parallel importers. It put pressure on the suppliers to increase supply to meet the demand, and it even set up a hotline to help mothers source milk powder.

The government action so far, though belated, has been successful. The problem has gone away.

But what has our government decided to do? It has asked the Legislative Council to pass the law barring anyone from taking more than two cans of milk powder out of Hong Kong, and as other revenue protection legislation, the authorities are already acting on it at the exit points before the passage of the subsidiary legislation in Legco.

I am saddened by this move by the government.

It hits at the very core of Hong Kong's status as a free port, an open society and a shoppers' paradise for all. To justify this move by overstating and overreacting to the temporary shortage of certain brands of a commodity is to unnecessarily fan the fire for protectionism.

I was shocked to hear that visitors who were caught carrying more than two cans while leaving the city had been arrested, denied bail and detained for days before being taken to court and fined.

If any of our citizens were treated this way by a country they were visiting, it would surely trigger an international incident.

Selina Chow is chairwoman of the Liberal Party