LCQ4: Supply of infant formula

     Following is a question by the Hon Andrew Cheng and a reply by the Acting Secretary for Food and Health, Professor Gabriel Leung, in the Legislative Council today (May 4):


     Regarding the problems of the short supply of and the speculative surge in the prices of milk powder locally, the Secretary for Food and Health, in reply to a question at the Council meeting on February 16 this year, advised that the Government had been proactively liaising closely with major milk powder suppliers, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy and major retailers, and that the suppliers and retailers of milk powder had actively taken steps to meet the market demand.  Yet, it has been reported that as milk powder has remained in short supply in Hong Kong at the retail level since the Chinese New Year, members of the public still have difficulties in purchasing milk powder, and apart from relying solely on the voluntary actions and self-discipline of the suppliers and retailers of milk powder, the Government has not taken any measure to stabilise the supply and prices of milk powder in Hong Kong.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council whether it will consider setting up milk powder retail outlets at the hospitals and clinics under the Hospital Authority and the Department of Health, or setting up milk powder retail outlets in collaboration with other social welfare organisations, and giving priority to Hong Kong people with infants or young children in making purchases at these retail outlets, in order to solve the problem of Hong Kong people being unable to purchase milk powder; if it will, when the plan will be implemented; if not, of the reasons for that and whether other effective measures are in place to help members of the public purchase milk powder?



     The Government cares about babies' health and has been promoting the merits of breastfeeding in order to encourage its adoption by parents.  The Government also understands that some parents still prefer infant formula, and has therefore paid particular attention to its safety and supply.  Since the reports of shortage of infant formula, we have been proactive in liaising closely with major infant formula suppliers, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy and major retailers.  We have been assured by the suppliers that they have sufficient stock on hand, and that they will increase supply to cope with the growing market demand.

     The major infant formula suppliers have all agreed that meeting the needs of local babies is their prime responsibility, and they have been closely monitoring the market situation.  If necessary, arrangements will be made for increasing supply in Hong Kong to ensure a stable supply of infant formula in the local market.  The major brands have already set up hotlines or purchase and delivery services to ensure that the needs of local babies are met.  Individual suppliers have pointed out that there has been an upward trend in requests for purchase and delivery services from their members, which shows that the public has got used to purchasing infant formula under the membership system.

     Retailers have also been closely monitoring the sale situation, particularly those retail outlets in areas near the boundary and along the East Rail Line.  They have actively approached the suppliers to discuss arrangements for increasing supply and delivery to expedite replenishment, so as to meet the demand of the market.  Some retail outlets have set sale quota for certain brands of infant formula in order to cater for the demand of local citizens.

     While considering whether infant formula should be sold by public organisations, we must balance it with the Government's policy in promoting breastfeeding.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends breastfeeding as the way of providing the best food for healthy growth and development of infants.  It recommends that babies under six months of age should preferably be exclusively breastfed, and then continue to be breastfed along with supplementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.  The Government has all along endeavoured to promote, protect and support breastfeeding and to implement this policy through the Department of Health (DH) and the Hospital Authority (HA).  Healthcare professionals provide counselling service for breastfeeding mothers, and help post-natal women acquire breastfeeding skills and tackle the problems they may encounter during breastfeeding.  Maternal and Child Centres under DH also conduct workshops to equip breastfeeding working mothers with the necessary skills so that they are prepared for continuing breastfeeding after returning to work.  To enhance parents' understanding on diet for babies and infants, DH plans to produce a parenting education kit on healthy diet for babies and infants, which will include a handbook, education VCDs and recipes, etc. so as to disseminate correct health information among parents.  Besides, public hospitals have banned promotional activities on breast-milk substitutes within their premises.  Starting from April 1, 2010, HA purchases milk powder from contract suppliers by tender and no longer accepts free samples of breast-milk substitutes.  It is also stipulated in the tender contracts that the suppliers must comply with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes of the World Health Organisation (WHO Code), which aims at ensuring that the sale and advertising of breast-milk substitutes will not discourage breastfeeding so as to achieve more effective implementation of the breastfeeding policy in hospitals.

     The Government is now in the process of drafting a Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (the Hong Kong Code).  The Hong Kong Code aims to regulate the manufacturers and distributors of breast-milk substitutes and to prohibit them from advertising and marketing their breast-milk substitutes and related products by way of malpractice.  In developing the Hong Kong Code, the Government will take into account the details and scope of regulation recommended in the WHO Code.  When the Hong Kong Code comes into effect, we will monitor its implementation to ensure that the correct information reaches the parents.

     Hong Kong practices free trade.  With an open and fair trading platform and transparent information, the stable and sufficient supply of infant formula by traders is ensured and a reasonable price for infant formula is maintained.  The Consumer Council also releases information of major brands of infant formula through the CHOICE Magazine and its website, including the out-of-stock rate, prices, customer services information and hints for switching formula for babies, etc.  Such information will increase the market transparency and competition.  Although there are shortages in the supply of particular brands at certain times, the overall supply of infant formula is still sufficient.  We consider that the existing measures have helped stabilise the supply of infant formula.  The Administration will continue to keep close liaison with the Consumer Council, major suppliers, importers and retailers of infant formula to jointly ensure the stable supply of infant formula in the local market.

Ends/Wednesday, May 4, 2011
Issued at HKT 15:00