Hong Kong lawmakers are mulling over a proposal from executive councillor Regina Ip to make infant milk formula a ‘reserved commodity’, restricting the ability of visitors from the mainland to buy the product.
Ip, who proposed the measure on Monday, said the change would require only an “easy” addition to the law and could immediately curb cross-border trading of such daily necessities.
She suggested each traveller could carry only two cans of milk powder when leaving the city.
“When there is a shortage of an essential food on which Hong Kong relies heavily on imports, there should be more regulation of price and stabilisation of supply,” she said yesterday.
At present, the city’s only reserved commodity is rice, which is protected in case of food shortages or emergencies.
[Ip] said that once an item was marked as a reserved commodity, the government could set a price ceiling and restrict imports and exports of the product.
That would counter pharmacies that reportedly reserved baby formula to sell at higher prices to mainlanders. “The government bears a responsibility to push down prices of goods where necessary,” she said.
The popularity of Hong Kong produced infant milk formula is understandable when seen in the context of the numerous food safety scandals on the mainland, particularly the 2008 incident when shipments of Sanlu milk were found to be tainted with melamine.
What is more perplexing is the continued willingness of Chinese mothers to seemingly try anything rather than breastfeed. Writing in the Telegraph last year, Tessa Thorniley puts this down to a decades long propaganda campaign by formula manufacturers:
Chinese prefer formula because formula companies tell them it is healthier and it bulks babies up more. Families who can afford it are increasingly forking out £30 a tub for safer, imported formula brands such as Aptamil.
For the older generations in China who remember the days of food shortages and starvation, a fat baby is a healthy baby. Doting grandparents urge their children to do what they can to raise chubby grandchildren.
A similar campaign by Nestle to push formula in developing countries, particularly African countries, resulted in a consumer boycott which spread to a number of countries and persists to this day.
Chinese employment laws also push mothers towards formula feeding. Working mums are (since the start of 2012) entitled to four months’ maternity leave which, although an improvement on the old rules, is still not long enough to meet the World Health Organisation guidelines which recommend breastfeeding for at least six months.
Even though around 2 million Chinese mums manage to pump milk at work to store and take home in the evening – earning them the nickname milk-carrying mum, or beinai mama – most employers don’t provide any private space to pump, so it can be a tricky affair. Public breastfeeding facilities are almost non-existent.
Contrary to the formula manufacturers’ oft repeated claims as to the health benefits of their ‘nutrient rich’ product:
Experts say formula milk powder makes children more prone to infections, asthma, obesity and diabetes. Low-quality milk powder and formula substitutes are often marketed in poor rural areas, where many parents have been forced to leave their children in the care of their grandparents while they work in the cities.