HK to regulate labels on baby formula after iodine warning

Move aims to prevent misleading information on levels of nutrition pending drafting of legislation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 August, 2012, 10:21am

An industry code regulating nutrition labelling on baby milk formula is expected to be launched at the end of the year, the health minister said.

Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said the move would serve as a stopgap until legislation can be brought in.

It follows the government's warning last week that three Japanese brands of infant formula were found to be low in iodine content and should not be given to babies because of a risk of thyroid and brain damage. The results of medical tests on 98 babies who had been fed the formulas revealed yesterday that one may have a thyroid problem, although it appeared unrelated to diet.

"We will work on legislation as soon as possible for labelling and nutrition-level requirements," Ko said in a radio interview yesterday. "Though legislation would be a long process, these elements will be included in an industry code."

The draft code was almost ready for consultation, Ko said, adding he hoped it would be launched towards the end of the year. He said industry codes to regulate advertisements for baby formula and promote breast-feeding would also be drafted.

Checks by the South China Morning Post found at least seven popular brands of infant formula have exaggerated nutrient levels on their labels. Food-labelling laws, introduced in 2010, exempt baby formula.

The test results released yesterday showed a slightly low thyroid-stimulating hormone level in one of the babies. "According to expert opinion, it is not related to low iodine consumption or low thyroid function, because if thyroid function is low, the thyroid-stimulating hormone level should be higher than the standard," said Ko.

Medical Association vice-president and private paediatrics specialist Dr Alvin Chan Yee-shing recommended further tests. He says a low thyroid-stimulating hormone level may be caused by an overactive thyroid, which is rare in children.

From last Wednesday until 4pm yesterday, the Department of Health's 2125 1111 hotline set up after the warning had received 3,893 inquiries. Some 153 callers said their babies had drunk the problem formulas. The thyroid tests are available at designated public health centres.

The Centre for Food Safety found low iodine content in the Meiji, Wakodo and Morinaga brands during tests as part of a regular scheme. Tests on other brands of infant formula will be conducted in the coming month.

Tests covering formula for older babies is expected to be completed in the first half of next year, Ko said.