Milk-formula makers oppose plan to make Hong Kong regulatory code voluntary

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 20 November, 2012, 4:25am

Six makers of top formula-milk brands, including Mead Johnson Nutrition and Wyeth, have slammed as "ineffective" the government's proposal to create guidelines that call for only voluntary compliance from companies.

The six brands, which teamed up to form the Hong Kong Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association, also criticised a plan by health authorities to lump three crucial regulatory measures into the voluntary code. A Legislative Council hearing on the issue is set to be held today.

"The draft Hong Kong code combines marketing practices, labelling and [policing of] quality standards into one voluntary code," the association said in a statement yesterday. "There is no country in the world that does this."

Formed last year, the group also includes Abbott Laboratories, Danone Baby Nutrition, FrieslandCampina and Nestle. They are urging tough legislation that requires all companies to abide by the same rules.

The government proposes banning marketing for all formula milk meant for children of up to three years old, and getting the Centre for Food Safety to examine product labelling.

The manufacturers hope to have the marketing limit lowered to products for six-month-olds or younger.

A code regulating nutrition labels on baby powder is expected to be passed at the end of the year. Secretary for Food and Health Dr Ko Wing-man said in August that it would be a stopgap measure until a law could be finalised.

Association president Clarence Chung Chi-wai, Hong Kong general manager of Pfizer, which oversees Wyeth products, said the voluntary code could not create a level playing field for all brands as some could choose to skirt the guidelines.

His group says it would be "contrary to Hong Kong's open free-market economy", should marketing regulations be biased and overly harsh.

In its written submission to Legco, the Consumer Council said it "doubts whether such [voluntary] measures could deal effectively with cases of non-compliance". The council also said simply examining product labels could be insufficient.

"[The centre] should … evaluate whether the health claims on the designated products are based on scientific substantiation."

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

Parents and breastfeeding advocates are upset by what they see as brainwashing over the benefits of formula. Advertisements "are sent to me via samples, SMS, e-mail, catalogues, Facebook, games and lucky draws", Joan Lu Yung-kuen, a 37-year-old mother of two boys, complained recently.