Public health

AVA to get more powers on how food is labelled

The AVA can now specifly what claims are allowed on food labels. The changes take the Sale of Food Act beyond food safety to promote public health by helping consumers to make informed choices.
The AVA can now specifly what claims are allowed on food labels. The changes take the Sale of Food Act beyond food safety to promote public health by helping consumers to make informed choices.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

It can also recall food products when contamination is suspected and license non-retail food businesses

Formula milk companies may soon have to encourage breastfeeding on milk tins, and avoid the use of misleading claims and pictures, under changes to the Sale of Food Act passed in Parliament yesterday.

The changes to the law - prompted by outrage over the rising prices of infant formula - also allow the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority to recall food products when contamination is suspected, and to license non-retail food businesses such as warehouses.

More importantly, it vests the AVA with more powers to enforce stricter food labelling and advertising rules.

The AVA can now specify what claims are allowed and the way they are presented, though these exact requirements will be defined later. Under existing laws, companies can be fined up to $5,000 for using unapproved claims.

"In other words, the claim need not be false for AVA to take action," said Senior Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon.

He said the changes take the Act, last amended in 2002, beyond food safety to promote public health by ensuring consumers can make informed choices.

Noting that infant milk formula companies may pass on the costs of advertising, he said: "We do not want parents to be unduly swayed into paying more for certain products due to aggressive or potentially misleading marketing."

The AVA can now specify what claims are allowed and the way they are presented... "In other words, the claim need not be false for AVA to take action," said Senior Minister of State for National Development Koh Poh Koon.

The Straits Times reported in March that the average price of a 900g tin of infant milk powder here had soared 120 per cent over the last decade to $56, making it among the most costly worldwide.

The Government then set up a task force to look at issues such as tightening regulations on advertising and facilitating imports of more formula milk options.

Two of the seven MPs who spoke on the Bill - Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC) and Nominated MP Kuik Shiao-Yin - asked whether the changes would apply to social media influencers who hawk their clients' products, including those with purported health benefits.

Mr Koh said they would: "The onus will be on the local agents or the paid advocates to ensure that the claims that they are making are truthful."

The new laws also allow the AVA to recall food products it suspects are contaminated, without waiting for conclusive test results.

Mr Koh noted that food supply chains have become more complex, so more time is needed to confirm the source and nature of any contamination. The changes, he said, "protect the public from unnecessary risk while investigations and testing are ongoing".

Failure to recall these products may result in a fine of up to $10,000 and/or six months' jail.

At the same time, "in the unlikely event of a false alarm", the Bill also puts in place an appeal and compensation mechanism for affected companies to seek redress, he said.

The AVA can now also license non-retail food businesses such as warehouses, wholesalers or distributors. Noting the trend of third-party logistics players providing food storage spaces for businesses, Mr Koh said conditions in some warehouses "are not ideal".

More than 1,000 food warehouses have registered themselves voluntarily so far, he said, adding that AVA will progressively license them - starting with the ones storing "high-risk items" like baby food.

Licensing fees will be pegged to the size of the warehouse, capped at $600 a year.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 08, 2017, with the headline 'AVA to get more powers on how food is labelled'. Print Edition | Subscribe