Milking the law? Industry responds to stricter infant formula rules in Singapore

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

Stricter regulations for formula milk manufacturers will also affect consumers. ©iStock
Stricter regulations for formula milk manufacturers will also affect consumers. ©iStock

Related tags Infant formula

Infant formula milk manufacturers claim stricter regulations planned by the Singapore government could lead to consumers having limited access to important nutritional information.

The new regulations will restrict the health and nutrition claims formula milk manufacturers are allowed to place on their products’ packaging, as well as images that might make their products look more attractive to consumers.

They come in the wake of a task force​ being assembled in an effort to counter rising infant formula prices.

The Singapore government believes formula milk manufacturers’ expenditure on R&D and marketing is excessive, leading to rising product prices.

But are the proposed new measures truly necessary? According to Venetta Miranda, executive director of the Asia Pacific Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association (APIYCNA), which counts the six big global infant formula firms among its members, price fluctuation is unavoidable.

“Product pricing is affected by many factors, including the extensive research behind infant and toddler nutritional products, the quality of ingredients, as well as the cost inflation for production processes, packaging and ingredients.”

She added that “operating and overhead costs, and other business considerations in each country” ​influence product pricing and that these factors differ from one market to another, meaning that “prices across different markets vary”​.

Restriction of information

For this reason, there is genuine concern about how the impending government regulations will affect formula milk manufacturers and consumer understanding of their products.

Miranda believes that maintaining formula milk manufacturers’ freedom to promote their products as they see fit is vital to marketing that is “ethical, unambiguous and done transparently”, ​and will empower parents "to make better nutrition decisions for their children”​.

She elaborated: “In this context, if the ability of manufacturers to provide information on product labels is restricted, it may deprive parents and caregivers of the necessary information to make appropriate nutrition decisions for their young children.”

Furthermore, manufacturers of formula milk for infants and young children in Singapore are already highly regulated. Local regulations and codes, such as the Sale of Infant Food Ethics Committee of Singapore (SIFECS) Code of Ethics, have long been established to keep them in check.

Member companies of the Singapore Infant Food Industry (SIFI) are also not permitted to take part in any marketing activity, or advertise directly to consumers for products for infants up to six months old, in accordance with the SIFECS code. In accordance with the new regulations, this will be extended to all formula for infants up to 12 months of age later this year.

State cooperation

In light of the recent developments, the industry has pledged to maintain dialogue with the relevant government agencies.

When contacted for comment, a Nestlé spokesman said, Nestlé strives to offer the best quality products to our consumers while delivering good nutrition. We remain fully committed to following and respecting all applicable local laws and regulations, including any new labelling, marketing and advertising guidelines.

Similarly, Miranda said, “We will continue to work with government stakeholders to…strike a balance between the various factors, including the needs of Singapore’s families, consumers’ right to information, access to safe, adequate and high-quality products, as well as economic realities.”

Despite manufacturers having to restrict their marketing and consumers’ access to information being limited as a result, there are those who feel the proposed new regulations are a step in the right direction.

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), an international NGO that has worked closely with governments, WHO, and UNICEF for over 30 years, have focused on restricting the marketing of infant formula in favour of breastfeeding. It also monitors the marketing practices of infant formula manufacturers worldwide.

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981) aims to restrict the marketing of infant formulas, including banning all forms of promotion, in a bid to promote breastfeeding.

National measure

An IBFAN spokeswoman told NutraIngredients-Asia​: “We would like to draw your attention to the fact that all countries are obligated to adopt the International Code — and subsequent World Health Assembly resolutions — into their national measures.”

Since the implementation of the code, 40 countries have adopted it as part of the law, 31 have legally enforced many but not all its provisions, and 56 have given effect to some aspects of it.

The spokeswoman added that “Singapore is one of the very few to have an ‘industry code’, i.e., rules written by the industry rather than by public health authorities.”

Despite these criticisms, APIYCNA said the SIFECS code was a multi-stakeholder system “that often exceeds the aims and principles of the WHO Code”​. It also insisted nations were not obliged to adopt the resolutions of the WHO into their national measures.

Barely a week after the government task force was established, a locally made brand of formula milk, Einmilk, launched on Tuesday, 30 May. Owned by Singaporean company AE Solutions, the formula costs below $40 per tin, in line with efforts to combat price inflation.

At the same time, supermarket chain FairPrice is considering not only stocking more formula milk products, but also producing an in-house brand of milk powder.

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