The new measures limiting milk formula exports were implemented as a “last resort” to maintain domestic supply of what was fast becoming a scarce commodity, and were not aimed at mainland tourists, food and health secretary Ko Wing-man told the Beijing News  on Tuesday.
His remarks came days after the controversial two-tin cap on infant formula exports, which went into effect on Friday, stirred heated discussions on the mainland, some of which blamed Hong Kong for being unfriendly to mainland tourists and parents.
“We hope the people of Hong Kong and the mainland are able to understand the [legislation] was a last resort and not a deliberate targeting of mainland tourists or parallel traders,” Ko said.
Ko reiterated that the shortage was driven by excess demand and implementing the measure was the only way to combat rampant parallel trading and safeguard the availability of a vital food staple for Hong Kong babies.
“We believe our first priority is to ensure local parents can buy milk formula for their babies…it is a staple food just like white rice and we must take measures to ensure its supply.”
Asked if the rule was too draconian, Ko said he did think the government was overreacting over an extremely important matter. “This is about people’s livelihoods,” he said.
A breach of the new restriction comes with a maximum fine of HK$500,000 and a prison sentence of up to two years. However, Ko said that the maximum penalties would only apply to “large-scale smugglers”.
Ko did not say whether the measures would be short term or long term. He said the government would monitor the situation until they decided it was the right time to lift the restrictions.