Nutrition claims, 'idealised' images on milk tins must go

Rows of baby formula powder tins at FairPrice Xtra supermarket. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Infant milk powder tins will soon have to change their labels to remove nutrition and health claims and "idealised" images, under stricter advertising and labelling restrictions by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA).

The stricter regulations, first announced by Senior Minister of State for Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon in Parliament on Monday, are aimed at reining in the big spending on marketing activities and passing the cost savings on to consumers.

In response to queries, the AVA said that it aims to complete the review of the regulations by the end of this year. After a consultation period, the regulations will be gazetted, and, by law, industry members will be given one year's grace period to amend the labels.

Asked for examples of idealised images that AVA wants removed, the agency indicated that these could be pictures or text that idealise the use of infant formula over breast milk.

Parents and MPs said that some of the current labels may mislead parents into thinking that they can make children smarter, pointing to Abbott's Similac Gain IQ and Mead Johnson Nutrition's Enfamil A+ as labels that are misleading and should be changed.

Gain IQ, in which "IQ" stands for "intestinal quality", has previously come under scrutiny here by the Consumers Association of Singapore for its labelling.

The brand, whose formula is for children one year and above, will not, however, come under the tightened regulations, which apply only to formula milk for zero to 12 months, as after a year, formula milk is no longer required.

Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC MP Sun Xueling, referring to the prominent A+ on the labelling of the Enfamil formula, said: "Such images may create a sense of a premium brand, as parents may have the perception that their child can get A+ in their studies by consuming such products."

She added: "It is thus timely that the AVA will tighten its regulations... preventing a situation where customers are paying more so that manufacturers can then spend more on advertising and marketing, which is then charged back to consumers."

An estimated 95 per cent of formula milk sales in 2015 were for "premium" and speciality milk, with just 5 per cent for "standard" milk, which typically costs less than half the price, according to the Competition Commission of Singapore.

MacPherson MP Tin Pei Ling agreed: "Parents want the best for their children; they would rather sacrifice and go for premium brands."

Housewife and mother of two Rita Lee, 34, said: "I think the visual cues on some labels are misleading and can lead parents to subconsciously gravitate towards them."

To help parents make informed decisions, the Health Promotion Board will step up public education and embark on a multi-year campaign on the nutritional needs of children.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 11, 2017, with the headline Nutrition claims, 'idealised' images on milk tins must go. Subscribe