A mainland woman said she was detained at the border last week for breaking Hong Kong's two-tin limit on milk powder exports because she thought rice-based milk cereal for infants was not affected by the new restrictions.
The regulations, which came into effect on March 1, limit unlicensed exports of powdered infant formula to two cans or 1.8kg and are meant to address local fears of a milk powder shortage as mainland traders buy up supplies in Hong Kong to sell across the border. Milk powder is generally less expensive and seen to be safer in Hong Kong.
The woman, Huang Xuejiao, said she did not know powdered rice milk cereal was included in the rule and said she asked customs officials at Lok Ma Chau more than once.
“When I was entering Hong Kong, I asked customs officials whether rice milk powder was part of the limit and they told me only milk powder was, milk rice was not,” she wrote in a weibo post under the name Nan Juejue, which has since been circulated on the internet.
Rice milk, a type of grain milk processed from rice, is an alternative to milk to infants who are lactose intolerant or allergic to cow’s milk and soy.
According to the new import and export regulations, all unlicensed exports of powdered formula for infants and children under 36 months are restricted to two-cans per person. This includes any “milk or milk-like substance in powder form” such as milk powder and soya milk powder. Rice milk is not specifically mentioned. Offenders can face a maximum fine of HK$500,000 and two years' imprisonment.
Huang, from eastern China's Jiangsu province, was caught with two tins of baby formula weighing 1.8kg and four cans of Friso-brand rice-based milk cereal weighing 1.2kg in her luggage.
She said she was detained* by customs officials had to pay HK$1,000 to bail herself out. Asked for comment, Huang told the South China Morning Post that rumours spreading on the internet that she was treated rudely by customs officials, may have been overblown.
"I understand they were just following procedure," she said, adding that she still liked Hong Kong as a city because it was "clean and orderly" and would do more research regarding laws on any place she visits in the future.
The Customs and Excise Department acknowledged the case. A spokesman told the Post that because the rice-based cereal powder contained milk content and was packaged in "similar containers" as milk powder, customs officers were under the impression they were subject to the new regulations.
"After we were given the relevant information from the suppliers, we learned that this was baby food in solid form and therefore, not subject to the new regulations. This is an isolated case and customs officials are following up with the case."
Huang said neither customs nor the police have informed her of the new assessment. She said she was excited to hear about it and would contact Hong Kong customs to see if she was still due to show up for an April 18 court date.
*Correction: An earlier version said Huang Xuejiao was detained by Hong Kong customs for 48 hours. She said she did not stay the night in custody because she bailed herself out for HK$1,000.