Fate of Japan's long-standing ban on liquid infant formula remains to be seen

By Cheryl Tay

- Last updated on GMT

The production and sale of liquid formula is not permitted in Japan because of a lack of relevant government safety standards. ©Getty Images
The production and sale of liquid formula is not permitted in Japan because of a lack of relevant government safety standards. ©Getty Images
The future of Japan's existing ban on liquid infant formula milk remains uncertain despite industry talk of a likely reversal, according to a local trade association.

Several sources have reported that the Japanese government is expected to lift the ban on the production and sale of liquid infant formula by summer, after the Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare unveiled a draft of safety rules earlier this month.

During a meeting with a panel examining food sanitation, the ministry presented the draft, which had been based on research by the Japan Dairy Industry Association.

However, a spokesman from the trade body itself told NutraIngredients-Asia​: "The reported information is uncertain, as the standards for (producing and selling) liquid formula are still under consideration and have yet to be established.

"The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare have not commented on lifting the ban."

Powdery preference

The production and sale of liquid formula — common in many countries as a convenient alternative to powdered milk — is not permitted in Japan because of a lack of relevant government safety standards.

The association spokesman explained, "Japan has many years of experience in producing high-quality powdered infant formula with a long shelf life.

"Since 1951, the authorities have considered powdered milk the most suitable form of the product. In addition to canned products, there are cube-shaped tablets, as well as individually packed sachets that are convenient to use.

"Therefore, we have had less of a need and lower demand for liquid infant formula."

The necessities of disaster

However, during the Kumamoto Prefecture earthquakes in 2016, affected residents had to rely on liquid formula donated by Finland as part of its emergency aid.

As clean water was not required to prepare or consume the formula, the ministry realised its usefulness, especially following a disaster. It thus began exploring how best to set standards for the domestic production of liquid formula.

The association's study had shown that, if stored at 25°C or below, sterilised liquid formula containing ingredients similar to those in powdered formula could be safely consumed for up to a year.

The future of formula?

It also revealed that a few major dairy manufacturers had already expressed interest in marketing liquid formula, and if and when the ministry officially rolls out the relevant standards, they will likely commence product development.

The spokesman added, however, that apart from regulatory revision and industry interest, consumer consideration was imperative, and manufacturers must take into account a number of factors.

"In existing markets, liquid infant formula is usually two to three times more expensive than powdered formula.

"Additionally, the nutrients in liquid formula may cause sediment to form at the bottom of the container over time, turning it brown.

"While this will not influence the content or quality of the product, many consumers may be put off by it as they are used to milk being a whitish colour.

"On top of that, the products should be within what the market considers an affordable price range.

"We also need to study how to meet the requirements for relief supplies, in case of a disaster."

Ministry officials told Japanese media that, since trials would be needed to confirm expiration dates, any approved liquid formula products would take several years to appear on shelves.

The proposed standards will be discussed further at a Cabinet Office food safety panel meeting, after which the government may revise the related ministry directives, no earlier than this summer.

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