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Govt moving to ensure formula milk prices are kept in check

Govt moving to ensure formula milk prices are kept in check
The Singapore Government has indicated it wants to allow more brands to hit shelves here and tackle unsubstantiated nutrition and health claims made by milk formula makers. Photo: AFP

Govt moving to ensure formula milk prices are kept in check

Simplified import requirements, clearer labelling rules planned to better protect consumers

SINGAPORE — Ahead of the competition watchdog’s findings on the infant-formula market to be released later this week, the Government has indicated that it wants to allow more brands to be on shelves here, and tackle unsubstantiated nutritional and health claims made by milk-formula makers.

Addressing a question on the rising prices of milk powder in Parliament on Monday (May 8), Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said that the Government is “concerned ... about the high price”, and acknowledged that steps could be taken to “encourage greater price competition between brands”. Dr Koh noted that the six major manufacturers that supply formula milk here “have a market presence which is much bigger than the other manufacturers”.

To bring in more options for parents, the Government will simplify and streamline import requirements to eliminate unnecessary entry barriers, but without compromising food safety, he said. 

The target is to finalise the changes by the end of the year.

Dr Koh said that the advertising and labelling rules that apply to milk companies will also be tightened to better protect consumers. For instance, the use of nutrition and health claims could be barred, which could discourage firms from spending “massive” sums on aggressive advertising and marketing activities, which they could then pass on to consumers.

He noted: “Some infant-formula companies give the impression that their particular brand of milk powder can actually do more. The scientific evidence for this is weak.”

He added: “Without better information, parents should therefore be careful about relying on the claims made by infant-formula companies, or be misled into using price as a proxy for the quality of the product.”

The Health Promotion Board is supporting a continuing review of the Sale of Infant Food Ethics Committee, Singapore’s code of ethics, and this will include expanding its coverage to formula for infants up to one year old. The code now restricts the advertising, marketing and promotion of formula for infants under six months old.

“Taken together, the increased choices available and the improved clarity of labelling should enhance the competitiveness of the infant-formula market,” said Dr Koh.

Besides regulations, Dr Koh said that hospitals play a crucial role. Both public and private hospitals encourage breast-feeding but will provide infant formula where necessary, such as when mothers are unable to produce enough milk for their babies or are on medication for chemotherapy.

But it was “unsatisfactory” that private hospitals here have not committed to the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, barring them from entering sponsorship arrangements with milk-powder firms, he said. All public hospitals offering maternity services are certified under this initiative.

In her supplementary question, MacPherson Member of Parliament Tin Pei Ling said young parents of children, especially those with special medical needs, felt they are being “held ransom”. She asked if the

Government would consider control measures similar to those China has adopted, such as imposing caps on the types of milk powder firms can sell. This would force companies to clear their inventory in the short term, bringing prices down, and also prevent an “over-concentration” of certain brands, pushing up competition, Ms Tin told TODAY.

In response, Dr Koh said infants with special needs, such as allergies, require pricier formulas, and it would be “difficult” for the Government to restrict the prices of specific formulas because of the R&D expenses firms have to incur. What the Government can do for this group is widen options and offer financial support, he added.

For infants who are fed generic formula, Dr Koh stressed that all brands here, regardless of price and their claims, meet the minimum nutritional requirements.

Noting that prices for a 900g tin range between S$20 and up to about S$60, he said: “(Parents) are not shortchanging their children by giving them the cheaper option, because (this), nutritionally, is just as good.”