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LCQ17: Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes applicable to Hong Kong

     Following is a question by the Hon Frederick Fung and a written reply by the Secretary for Food and Health, Dr York Chow, in the Legislative Council today (December 7):


     Nowadays infant formula advertisements and promotion are of a great variety and according to a study conducted earlier by the Consumer Council (CC), there is insufficient evidence to prove the beneficial claims of certain ingredients in some infant formulas, and exaggerating and misleading claims in the advertisements are involved.  It has also pointed out in my earlier question that the authorities should, by means of publicity and education, eliminate the public misconception that infant formulas are richer and more comprehensive in nutrient components than breastmilk and change the parents' behaviour of blind worship of famous brands of infant formulas.  In this connection, will the Government inform this Council:

(a) how the authorities regulate the publicity contents of infant formula advertisements at present; as CC's study has found that the claims in some infant formulas might be exaggerating and misleading, whether the authorities had taken any corresponding action in respect of similar claims in the past three years; if they had, whether such actions included issuing warnings and instituting prosecutions; if not, of the reasons for that, and whether this is an indication that the authorities can do nothing about the false claims in the advertisements of infant formulas;  

(b) given that the Government is now drawing up a Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes applicable to Hong Kong (the Code) for the purpose of regulating manufacturers and distributors of breastmilk substitutes to prohibit them from advertising or marketing their breastmilk substitutes and related products by way of malpractice, of the details of the drafting of the Code; whether it will incorporate the Code in law and mete out a heavy penalty, and also consider taking a step further to impose a blanket ban on infant formula advertisements; if not, of the reasons for that; and

(c) given that the World Health Organization has all along been advocating breastfeeding, pointing out that breastmilk is the best food for the healthy growth and development of babies and suggesting that babies under six months of age should preferably be exclusively breastfed, and then continue to be breastfed supplemented by other foods until the age of two or above, of the latest percentage and practice of breastfeeding in Hong Kong according to the surveys of the Government; the measures taken by the authorities to support the practice of continual breastfeeding; and whether the authorities will set a target percentage for breastfeeding?



     The Government has all along endeavoured to promote, protect and support breastfeeding, and has been implementing this policy through the Department of Health (DH) and 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.  Infant formulas are manufactured in imitation of the nutritional content of breastmilk, and different infant formulas are very similar in composition.  Although some parents choose to feed their babies with infant formulas, breastmilk remains the best food for the healthy growth and development of babies.

     My reply to the various parts of the question is as follows:

(a) The Government has all along attached importance to the safety of infant formulas.  Every year, under the routine food surveillance programme of the Centre for Food Safety (CFS), milk powder samples are taken at import, wholesale and retail levels for chemical and microbiological testing.  Between 2007 and 2010, CFS took a total of 960 milk powder samples (including 590 infant formula samples) for testing.  All results were satisfactory.

     Under section 61 of the Public Health and Municipal Services Ordinance (Cap.132), a person shall be guilty of an offence if he uses or displays a label which falsely describes food or is calculated to mislead as to its nature, substance or quality.  The Ordinance also makes it an offence for any person to publish, or to be partly to the publication of, an advertisement which falsely describes any food, or is likely to mislead as to the nature, substance or quality of any food.  The maximum penalty is a fine of $50,000 and imprisonment for six months.

     From 2009 to 2010, CFS received a complaint related to promotional materials of infant formula.  After seeking legal advice, the complaint was confirmed to be not substantiated.  In 2011, CFS has taken follow-up actions on 27 suspected cases of infant formulas with questionable claims and issued letters to the retailers/distributors/manufacturers involved in three of these cases, demanding them to provide information in support of their claims.  As for the remaining cases, follow-up actions are still in progress.  No prosecution has been instituted so far.

     The Broadcasting Authority (BA), as the statutory regulatory body for the broadcasting industry, has stipulated that licensed broadcasters must not broadcast misleading advertisements.  Over the past three years, BA handled a total of 10 complaints about misleading infant formula advertisements.  Having taken into account the professional advice given by the relevant departments (including DH and CFS), BA considered that there was insufficient evidence to conclude that the advertisements were misleading and thus decided that the complaints were not substantiated.

     The Government encourages manufactures and distributors of infant formulas to exercise self-discipline and monitor their marketing practice of their own accord by complying with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes published by the World Health Organization (WHO Code) in 1981 and the resolutions made in subsequent sessions of the World Health Assembly (WHA).

(b) DH set up a Taskforce on Hong Kong Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes at the end of June 2010, which is tasked to develop a Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes applicable to Hong Kong (the Hong Kong Code) with the objective to govern manufacturers and distributors of breastmilk substitutes and related products to prevent them from advertising and marketing their breastmilk substitutes and related products by way of malpractice.  When formulating the details and coverage of the Hong Kong Code, the Government will make reference to the details and scope of regulation recommended in the WHO Code and the subsequent WHA resolutions, and take account of the local advertising and marketing practices of the manufacturers and distributors of the relevant products.

     The Hong Kong Code will be implemented in the form of voluntary guidelines in tandem with an appropriate monitoring mechanism.  At present, many countries like Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, etc, have formulated voluntary guidelines applicable in their own countries for compliance by the trade with reference to the WHO Code.  In light of the experience of these countries, it would be more effective in the control of undesirable marketing practices if appropriate monitoring and sanction mechanisms are put in place in tandem with implementation of the Code.  After the Hong Kong Code has been put into implementation, the Government will monitor the situation and canvass the views of various parties to consider if there is a need to step up enforcement and regulation through the Hong Kong Code.

(c) With the Government's efforts to promote breastfeeding, the breastfeeding rate in Hong Kong has been continuously on the rise.  The findings of the regular breastfeeding surveys carried out by DH's maternal and child health centres (MCHCs) among their target clients indicated that of the babies born in 2010, the percentage of ever-breastfed babies was 77%, while the percentage of babies exclusively breastfed for 4 to 6 months was 14%.  Over the past 10 years, the surveys conducted by obstetric departments in hospitals indicated that the percentage of newborn babies in Hong Kong who had been ever-breastfed increased from 55% in 2000 to close to 80% in 2010, demonstrating an impressive outcome.

     DH's MCHCs have been endeavouring to promote breastfeeding and have conducted a series of workshops to equip breastfeeding working mothers with the necessary skills to get them prepared for continuing breastfeeding after returning to work.  DH has also been collaborating with other professional bodies in enhancing the breastfeeding training for local healthcare personnel, enabling them to give effective support to mothers for continued breastfeeding.  Besides, the formulation of a local Code applicable to Hong Kong is crucial for encouraging and upholding breastfeeding as well as affording protection to infants and babies through proper use of breastmilk substitutes.

Ends/Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Issued at HKT 19:45


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