25 February 2020
A file picture shows a Chinese visitor asking for the price of a tin of infant milk powder at a store in Hong Kong. Authorities announced on Monday that they will keep the export restrictions in place on the key item. Photo: Reuters
A file picture shows a Chinese visitor asking for the price of a tin of infant milk powder at a store in Hong Kong. Authorities announced on Monday that they will keep the export restrictions in place on the key item. Photo: Reuters

Export control to remain in place on baby milk powder

The government announced that it will continue with the existing restrictions on the export of powdered infant formula, as it believes the potential non-local demand for such products will remain huge.

In a statement on Monday, the Food and Health Bureau (FHB) said the decision to keep the export control in place was arrived at following a review of the market situation and taking into account the views of the stakeholders.

A spokesman said that before making the decision, the department had listened to the views of the Legislative Council Panel on Food Safety and Environmental Hygiene, the Committee on Supply Chain of Powdered Formula, the District Councils that had expressed concerns on the review, as well as different stakeholders in society, plus the result of market surveys.

The purpose was to review the export control that had taken effect nearly six years ago. A report of the review results has been submitted to the panel, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.

Since March 2013, the government has required that that no more than 1.8 kilograms of powdered formula (equivalent to about two cans) for infants and young children under the age of 36 months may be carried by each person aged 16 or above on his/her departure from Hong Kong within a 24-hour period.

The export control came after Hong Kong suffered a serious shortage of infant formula as most of it was bought by parallel traders and transported to mainland China, where there was huge demand for imported products due to food safety scandals in the country.

To review the export control of powdered formulae, the FHB conducted six rounds of market surveys last year, covering pharmacies and chain stores selling infant formula in the 18 districts across the territory.

The results showed that “nine out of 10 times fieldworkers were able to buy designated powdered formula products immediately at the retail outlets randomly sampled. For those occasions when the retail outlets did not have readily available stocks of the designated powdered formula products, the fieldworkers could buy the same products after visiting one to two retail outlets within around a five-minute walking distance nearby on the same day in most circumstances,” according to the government statement.

That said, the FHB spokesman pointed out that the volume of infant formulae re-exported from Hong Kong through normal trading activities has risen significantly since the implementation of the export control.

Government figures have revealed that the number of convictions of people who breached the policy has stayed at about 3,800 per year since 2016 with no downward trend seen, suggesting that parallel trading activities on powdered formulae are still persistent.

As such, the authority believes that relaxing or lifting the restrictions may very likely result in a surge in parallel trading activities and a big impact on the supply chain.

There are no other measures that can easily replace the export control at this stage, the FHB said, stressing the export control has a significant role in safeguarding the stable supply of infant formulae at local retail outlets.

The stability seen over the past few years, following the export contol, has put local parents at ease, the department noted.

The FHB spokesman added that the government will keep in view the operation of the supply chain of infant formulae, together with the changes in the potential non-local demand in the local retail market, in order to defend the supply in Hong Kong.

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung Kin-chung told media that the decision to maintain the status quo was made after the government had listened to and carefully considered the views of the Legco, District Councils and the trade.

Commenting on the decision, wholesale and retail sector lawmaker Peter Shiu Ka-fai from the Liberal Party said conflicts between Hong Kong and the mainland are the reason why the export control of infant formula remains.

The lawmaker urged the government to think seriously on the matter, cautioning that the policy can hurt Hong Kong’s image as a free port.

Lam Wai-man, chairman of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy, said the government should at least loosen the restrictions since local demand for infant formula actually accounts for only 15 percent of the total supply.

But Lawmaker Edward Lau Kwok-fan from the pro-Beijing Democratic Alliance for the Betterment of Hong Kong supported the government’s decision, saying the restrictions should not be lifted until mainland consumers regain confidence in food safety in their local market or until foreign powered milk products can freely enter the mainland market.

Democratic Party lawmaker Andrew Wan Siu-kin also welcomed the administration’s decision, but called on authorities to limit the number of times mainland visitors can come to Hong Kong to “eight trips per year”, from the current “one trip per week” regime. 

This is because there have still been shortages of powdered formulae in Northern District, Tuen Mun, Yuen Long and Tung Chung, Wan argued.

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