Baby formula

Lawmakers, district councillors rally against review of Hong Kong’s milk powder export restrictions

Fears linger that traders will again flood pharmacies near New Territories border, interrupting daily lives of residents

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 9:32pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 October, 2017, 11:25pm

A government review of the amount of infant formula a person can legally carry out of Hong Kong has triggered a backlash from local lawmakers and district councillors.

Restrictions were introduced in 2013 that banned travellers transporting more than two tins of milk powder, or 1.8kg, per person out of the city. The policy was aimed at easing a shortage of the product experienced by local parents, who found themselves competing with parallel traders snapping up supplies for resale across the border in mainland China, where many consumers harbour concerns about the safety and quality of local produce.

The shortage in Hong Kong triggered several protests, forcing the government to intervene.

The city’s leader, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, said in her maiden policy address on Wednesday that the government would carry out a review of the export controls in the hope of addressing the concerns of “different stakeholders”.

But Lam’s proposal has drawn criticism from a member of the city’s legislature and several district councillors, who staged a campaign against the review on Saturday over fears that traders would again flood pharmacies near the New Territories border and interrupt the daily lives of local residents.

“We think it is time for us to conduct a thorough review of the restrictions,” Professor Sophia Chan Siu-chee, secretary for food and health, said on Friday, after figures from customs and research showed trading activities had quietened down and local supply was stable.

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Chan said the ban had been a “short-term measure” and her bureau would conduct a review over a period of a year to gain a better understanding of the supply chain and consumer behaviour.

Mainland parents often favour foreign brands of formula following a scandal in 2008 in which it was found that Chinese producers had mixed the chemical melamine into baby milk powder, which led to 30,000 toddlers falling sick and six dying.

Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy vice-chairman Lau Oi-kwok welcomed Lam’s proposal, saying local retailers had significantly suffered from the two-can limit and many had been forced out of business.

“Business would certainly be better [if the limit were lifted]. We don’t have enough babies in Hong Kong to support so many pharmacies,” he said.

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But Lau was not sure if sales would return to levels seen four years ago, as many mainland parents had since taken to ordering foreign formula through online platforms.

However, local residents and politicians were still concerned.

“Hong Kong will not be able to satisfy the huge demand for infant formula from the mainland if the limit is not in place,” Democratic Party lawmaker Lam Cheuk-ting said.

The gradual relaxation of mainland China’s one-child policy since 2015 would further aggravate shortages in the city, he added.