Move to rein in hype over formula milk

We asked experts to compare three kinds of milk powder to find out if higher price is always better.
The AVA said brands need not highlight the composition of formula milk as all products need to contain the nutrients it has listed in its rules.
The AVA said brands need not highlight the composition of formula milk as all products need to contain the nutrients it has listed in its rules.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

AVA seeking feedback on banning health claims on labels and images idealising it over breast milk

Infant milk powder labels often tout a host of ingredients that ostensibly boost brain and eye development as well as a myriad of other benefits. But they may have to become much plainer if such claims, and even more innocuous ones, like "Calcium helps to build strong bones", are outlawed.

Ms Seah Peik Ching, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority's (AVA) regulatory administration group deputy director, told The Sunday Times: "Under our regulations, there's a list of nutrient composition requirements where all the products need to contain these basic nutrients, so there's no reason for (brands) to highlight them."

The AVA is gathering feedback for its proposal to ban health and certain nutrition claims, as well as images that idealise formula over breast milk on labels.

It is also seeking to mandate the inclusion of a statement on the importance of breastfeeding.

Ms Seah, citing an example of an idealised image, said: "A cartoon character doing a puzzle - we take it as implying that this product can help to enhance kids' abilities."

The proposed rules would apply only to stage one and two formulas for infants up to 12 months, however, as children above a year old do not require formula.

The AVA is gathering feedback for its proposal to ban health and certain nutrition claims, as well as images that idealise formula over breast milk on labels. It is also seeking to mandate the inclusion of a statement on the importance of breastfeeding.

Last month, Parliament passed amendments to the Sale of Food Act, which empowered the AVA to specify what can or must be contained in food labels to promote public health and enable informed decisions.

Some manufacturers, such as recently launched local brand, Einmilk, are already taking steps to comply with the potential new rules.

The made-in-Singapore formula entered the local market in May, positioning itself as an affordable option amid public debate over high prices for the product.

The Government had then cautioned against using price as a proxy for quality, and vowed to crack down on misleading advertising and labelling.

Einmilk business director Chan Yong Chye disclosed that the firm decided to cover part of its product labels with stickers after receiving advice from the AVA that images such as an eye and brain accompanied by nutrient names were likely to be disallowed in the future. Nearly $20,000 was spent by the company to cover the labels of existing stock and revise the ones for new tins.

"We took the initiative to do this because we want to build trust as a Singapore brand," said Mr Chan.

 
 

Nature One Dairy, which launched its formula milk range in August, also developed its label for the local market after consulting the AVA. Mr Nick Dimopoulos, chief executive of the Australian-based Singapore company, said: "A lot of the other brands will likely have to make drastic changes because they make ridiculous claims."

Major manufacturers Nestle and Danone Dumex said that they are involved in discussions with the AVA, while FrieslandCampina added that it is reviewing the proposed amendments to ensure its products are compliant. Abbott declined to comment and Mead Johnson Nutrition did not respond to queries.

The Health Promotion Board said that the revised Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee Singapore code, which is being finalised, will back AVA's regulations on infant formula milk labelling.

Since the formation of a government task force in May, the AVA said it has facilitated the entry of 24 new formula milk products to the local market as part of efforts to rein in prices.

While import procedures and requirements for formula milk have been streamlined, the AVA stressed that nutrient composition requirements and food safety surveillance have not been relaxed.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 10, 2017, with the headline 'Move to rein in hype over formula milk'. Print Edition | Subscribe