Japanese food products enjoy a good reputation for safety, one reason Japanese supermarkets are popular in Hong Kong. Even after the Fukushima nuclear disaster last year, no serious issues were raised about contamination of imports to Hong Kong, thanks in part to heightened vigilance by our own and Japanese authorities. So it comes as a shock that six Japanese baby formula products sold here have failed the World Health Organisation standard for daily intake of the vital nutrient iodine, essential for thyroid and brain function. Four other brands that do meet the WHO benchmark still fail that of the international food-standards-setting body Codex. News of the deficiencies, revealed by tests by the Centre for Food Safety on infant formula products, has resulted in a rush by parents who bought the products in question to register for or inquire about free iodine-level check-ups at government health clinics for babies up to eight months old. Many parents of older babies are understandably concerned about access to testing.
Ironically, the scare comes just two years after Hong Kong finally passed nutritional labelling laws that might have averted it. Alas, our law exempts food for children under three because of different nutritional considerations. Meanwhile, the 60 infant formula products sold in the city under 40 brands had been tested for contamination, but not for nutritional content. The food safety centre is not even halfway through the nutritional testing project for milk powder products.
Thankfully, the government has promised to fast-track legislation to close the loophole. Unfortunately, a food safety official says it cannot give a timetable because of the need to take into account expert advice, local women's eating habits and the viability of the industry. Officials should be mindful that parts of the industry will not be very viable if the public does not trust their products.
Centre for Health Protection Controller Dr Gloria Tam Lai-fan says Japanese formula may have less iodine content because Japanese women have more in their bodies, the country's water has high iodine levels and their breastfeeding rate is higher. That only serves to underline the need for Hong Kong babies to have the same nutritional safeguards as their elders. The city is, after all, an international marketplace for milk formula which is also tapped by mainland mothers for bulk purchases. Other countries formulate it according to their own needs, as the low-iodine example shows. Hopefully we will not have to wait six years for a nutritional labelling law to protect babies. That is how long it took to get the food labelling law we have from the time lawmakers began agitating for it. Nor can we afford to copy exemptions for low-sales-volume products, or for those importers prepared to delete dietary claims from their packaging rather than substantiating them by complying with the nutritional labelling law.