Taskforce formed to implement key measures to curb rising prices of formula milk

A lady buying milk powder at the Fairprice Xtra outlet at Ang Mo Kio Hub on May 11, 2017.
A lady buying milk powder at the Fairprice Xtra outlet at Ang Mo Kio Hub on May 11, 2017. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A taskforce has been formed to ensure that key measures to address concerns over the rising prices of formula milk will be put in place by the end of the year, Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said in a Facebook post on Monday (May 22).

"Our priority is to tighten regulations on labelling and advertising, facilitate imports of more formula milk options, raise public awareness, and encourage good practices in our hospitals," he said.

Dr Koh, who will be heading the taskforce, outlined these measures in Parliament on May 8 in response to concerns raised by several MPs.

The Straits Times reported in March that the average price of a 900g tin of formula has soared 120 per cent over the last decade to $56.06, outstripping the increases of other dairy products and household staples.

The Competition Commission of Singapore released a report on May 10 detailing the aggressive marketing efforts by six major formula manufacturers, which included building "premium" brand images and targeting hospitals to gain a "first-mover" advantage as parents tend not to switch brands.

Following its recommendations, the Ministry of Health (MOH), Health Promotion Board (HPB) and Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) have said that they will be working to encourage greater price competition, strengthen public education efforts and encourage hospitals to provide stronger support for breastfeeding.

The Government is now focused on implementing the measures, which will require close coordination among the public agencies and hospitals, said Dr Koh.

The taskforce will include Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor, MPs Sun Xueling and Rahayu Mahzam, and senior paediatricians Marion Aw from the National University Hospital (NUH) and Chan Yoke Hwee from KK Women's and Children's Hospital (KKH).

"Xueling and Rahayu's views will be particularly invaluable as they themselves are mothers of young children, and understand well the sentiments of other parents on this issue," said Dr Koh.

Work has already begun, said Dr Koh, with the HPB's ramping up of its multi-year public education programme to educate parents on the nutritional needs of children.

HPB chief executive Zee Yoong Kang told ST on Thursday (May 18) that $1 million has been set aside a year for the next five years for the campaign, which will kick off by the end of the month and include advertising, brochures for hospitals and social media efforts, among others.

"We have also heard much useful feedback - from healthcare specialists who provided professional advice on formula milk and breast feeding, to parents who generously shared their personal experiences. The taskforce will bear them in mind as we go about our work," said Dr Koh.

"We hope that the measures the Government puts in place will lead to the availability of more choices of formula milk, and give parents greater peace of mind to select an option that best meets their family's needs."

In response to queries, Dr Khor said that her role on the task force will be to help implement measures by engaging the various public and private health agencies and organisations, including the HPB, hospitals, polyclinics and relevant healthcare professionals.

"We will work for instance to promote awareness and education about breastfeeding and nutrition for infants and young children, and for more hospitals providing maternity services to adopt the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI)," she said.

BFHI-certified hospitals actively encourage breastfeeding and are barred from sponsorship arrangements with formula milk companies to prevent conflicts of interest.

All three public hospitals offering maternity services - KKH, NUH and the Singapore General Hospital - are BFHI-certified. None of the seven private hospitals offering maternity services are certified, though some said that they are working towards it.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Sun Xueling said that efforts to address the issue of high prices will need to address both the demand and supply side of the infant milk formula market. Strong brand perception among consumers adds to the challenges of addressing the issue, Ms Sun added.

She said parents she had spoken to during house visits have sought clarification on what the Government will be doing and its timeline, given that the high prices have hit their pockets hard, she said.

"I look forward to contributing to the task force by sharing the feedback from the hundreds of young parents I meet every week, so that the Government initiatives are understood and are calibrated correctly, and as much information is provided to residents as possible so that they can make informed choices," said Ms Sun.

Ms Rahayu (Jurong GRC), who gave birth to her first child last month, said that as a new mother she is aware of the anxieties parents have over the well-being of their children.

"It is not just an issue of controlling advertising and prices because you are also dealing with sentiments of parents, who will almost always be willing to pay a premium to give their child an edge," she said, adding that she will help to act as a conduit of information between the taskforce and the public.

While she encourages breastfeeding, "we should not stress and pressure young mothers to breastfeed", she said. "But if they choose to do so, we should ensure that there is support at the workplace in the infrastructure and facilities."

"My son is currently on full breastmilk. I am already worrying about how it would be when I go back to my usual routine full-time," she said.

 

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