Hong Kong's major formula milk brands fail to meet packaging proposals

City’s six major infant milk formula brands would fail to meet health warning requirements under government’s proposed packaging code

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 17 January, 2013, 7:15am

Not one of the major infant milk formulas on sale in Hong Kong would pass a proposed new packaging guideline if it was introduced tomorrow.

Should the manufacturers remain in the Hong Kong market after the changes, their packages should incorporate at least two important warnings in specific sizes alerting parents to the risk of using their products.

Milk formula makers are urging the government to relax the voluntary requirements - outlined in a draft code released for consultation - saying they disagree with some "fundamental aspects". But officials say they are not backing down, despite increasing the length of the consultation by two months.

"There is no intention for the government to turn away from the plan to establish the Hong Kong code," Food and Health Bureau undersecretary Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee said. She explained the extension to February 28 was to allow the government to hear more opinions.

Marketing director of formula maker Mead Johnson, Regina Tam Chuk-ching, said the code could be unrealistic. "There are some fundamental aspects we cannot agree with," she said. "I believe some manufacturers can [only] follow 80 per cent, some can comply 90 per cent."

A review by the South China Morning Post found products of six companies that account for more than 70 per cent of the formula sold in Hong Kong were missing one or both of two important requirements in the code, which is designed to combat misleading marketing.

These are warnings the formulas "could lead to diarrhoea or other related risks", printed in lettering at least 2cm high, and that parents should "use hot water above 70 degrees Celsius to mix the powder", stated in a display not less than 1.5cm high.

The brands surveyed were Mead Johnson, Abbott Nutrition, Danone, FrieslandCampina, Nestlé and Pfizer-owned Wyeth.

Although the code is voluntary, the government believes big brands will not want to defy it for public relations reasons.

But the Hong Kong Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association - formed by the six brands - said they would find it hard to include the two warnings.

Abbott said it was inaccurate to suggest that all formula brands could cause diarrhoea, as different formulas contained different substances. Furthermore, very hot water might kill benefits such as probiotics, live microorganisms which may help digestion.

Dr Robert Scherpbier, chief of health and nutrition for Unicef China, said the labelling was essential. He said exaggerated ads often brainwash parents about the magical effects of formulas, claiming they make babies healthier and smarter than breast milk.

He supports the new voluntary code, but has urged legislation to ban such bad behaviour.