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Senior Minister of State Dr Koh Poh Koon's oral reply to PQ on prices of formula milk

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Question

Ms Tin Pei Ling: To ask the Minister for Trade and Industry (Industry) given that the rise of milk powder prices in Singapore far exceeds inflation rates and the increment in other countries, whether the Ministry will work with local distributors and retailers to ensure fair pricing.


Oral reply (to be attributed to Senior Minister of State for Trade & Industry Dr Koh Poh Koon)

1.            I share the Member’s concern that local distributors and retailers should price milk powder appropriately.  Another Member, Ms Sun Xueling, has also spoken about milk powder in her interviews with Straits Times and ZaoBao over the weekend.
 
Consumer Awareness of Infant Feeding Options
 
2.            The Government is as concerned as Members are about the high price of infant formula.  We have been monitoring the situation and are taking steps to address the situation.  The Health Promotion Board (HPB) and international organisations including the World Health Organisation (WHO), strongly encourage breastfeeding as it can provide the nutritional needs of infants, with the added benefits of promoting motherchild bonding.  Breast milk is the best milk for growing infants. It has the best constituents to meet the nutritional needs of our infants. HPB recommends that, where possible, mothers should exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months.  Between 6 and 12 months, babies should be given breast milk together with complementary foods.  For children above 12 months of age, cows’ milk, as part of a balanced diet, is adequate to meet their nutritional needs.  Formula milk is not required for children beyond the first year of age.

3.            We recognise that, however in some cases, infants cannot be exclusively breastfed and will therefore need infant formula as a form of supplementation or main form of feeding. Hence, we have food regulations in Singapore which stipulate quality and safety standards for infant formula milk to be sold in Singapore.

4.            Singapore’s standards are similar to international standards in terms of required essential vitamins and minerals.  We assure all members and all members of the house that infant formula sold in Singapore, regardless of price, meets Singapore’s Food Regulations and the nutritional needs for infants to grow healthily.

5.            Some infant formula companies give the impression that their particular brands of milk powder can do more.  The scientific evidence for this is weak.  Without better information, parents should therefore be careful about relying on the claims made by infant formula companies, or be misled into using price as a proxy for the quality of the product.  The government will take steps to address this problem, including referencing the best practices in other jurisdictions.

6.            Public awareness is important, to support parents in deciding what is best for their children.  HPB, together with healthcare institutions and healthcare professionals, will get the message out, especially to mothers-to-be. 

7.            Besides consumer education, the Government will also do more through three ways. First, to do more through our maternity hospitals. Second, to review import requirements to facilitate more formula milk options on our shelves and third, to put in place stronger consumer protection by tightening advertising and labelling regulations.  Let me elaborate each of this in turn.

Role of Hospitals

8.            Hospitals play an important role where healthcare professionals provide information and advice to parents, and infants have many first experiences in our hospitals. 

9.            All hospitals, both public and private, encourage and support breastfeeding. They will provide infant formula when needed, for example if the mother is unable to produce enough milk to meet the baby’s needs or for specific medical reasons for which the mother should be discouraged from breastfeeding. For example, mothers who are on medication for chemotherapy. The Ministry of Health (MOH) will work with industry players to make available more infant formula options in hospitals.

10.         We will also strongly encourage all hospitals providing maternity services to achieve the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) certification.  All public hospitals offering maternity services are already BFHI-certified today, but private hospitals have yet to come on board and this is unsatisfactory.  BFHI-certified hospitals are committed to actively encourage and support breastfeeding targets, and are not allowed to enter into sponsorship arrangements with milk powder companies, given the potential for conflicts of interest.  We hope private hospitals will see this as beneficial for their patients, and will come on board to support the initiative.
 
Government Regulations

11.         The Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) recently completed a market study which examined the milk formula industry in Singapore, and the nature of competition at each level of the supply chain.  CCS will publish its report this week, and more details will be available then.  Should there be any evidence of companies acting in cohort to increase prices together, CCS will not hesitate to investigate the anti-competitive behaviour under the Competition Act. 

12.         There are several measures that can be taken together to encourage greater price competition between brands.  In Singapore, the six major manufacturers which supply formula milk have a market presence which is much bigger than the other manufacturers.[1] This was also a point also highlighted by Ms Sun Xueling’s online survey of about 2,500 respondents.

13.         The Government will simplify and streamline import requirements, as well as remove unnecessary barriers to entry, in order to bring in more options for parents but most importantly, without compromising food safety. 

14.         At the same time, we should also improve consumer protection.  The Government will strengthen restrictions on advertising and labelling.  The Sale of Infant Food Ethics Committee, Singapore (SIFECS) Code of Ethics already had a code of ethics that restricts advertising, marketing and promotion of infant formula for infants below 6 months in Singapore.  Nevertheless, HPB is supporting an ongoing review of the SIFECS Code which will include extending its coverage to all infant formula for infants up to 12 months of age.  The Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) will tighten its regulations on labelling and advertising further, including prohibiting the use of nutrition and health claims, and idealised images for infant formula milk.  This will also discourage companies from incurring massive costs on aggressive advertising and marketing activities, and subsequently passing these costs on to consumers.  Taken together, the increased choices available, and improved clarity of labelling should enhance the competitiveness of the infant formula market.
 
Assistance for Families with Infants and Children

15.       The Government is also committed to help ensure that the basic needs of all children in Singapore are met.  In this regard, ComCare provides assistance to low-income families in financial need, including families raising infants and young children.  They can approach their nearest Social Service Office (SSO) to apply for ComCare Short-to-Medium Term Assistance.  The SSO will assess their needs, and families may receive cash assistance for their basic needs.  Let me assure members that the cash assistance for families with infants and young children will take into account the costs of infant formula milk. 
16.       In addition, to support for the low-income families, all parents of Singaporean children can tap on the wide range of support measures under our Marriage and Parenthood Package, including the Baby Bonus Cash Gift, and Child Development Account to help defray child-raising costs.
 
Conclusion
 
17.       To conclude, Madam, I would like to reiterate that the Government shares parents’ concern about rising prices of formula milk in Singapore, and is committed to addressing them.  MTI and other government agencies such as MOH, HPB, and AVA will take steps to increase consumer awareness, encourage good practices in our hospitals, facilitate more formula milk options, and further tighten regulations on labelling and advertising.  The Consumers Association of Singapore (CASE) will also remind businesses to price their products fairly, and look into consumer feedback on potential profiteering.

 




[1] The six major manufacturers are Abbott, Danone, FrieslandCampina, MeadJohnson, Nestle and Wyeth. The smaller manufacturers include Bellamy, Hipp, Holle, Wakado and Bimbosan.

 



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DATE PUBLISHED 08 May 2017
LAST UPDATED 07 Aug 2017
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