Malaysia’s lockdown: Confusion over whether supplement manufacturing is ‘essential service’

By Tingmin Koe contact

- Last updated on GMT

Malaysia has imposed the Movement Control Order (MCO) where non-essential services are not allowed to work from the office. ©Getty Images
Malaysia has imposed the Movement Control Order (MCO) where non-essential services are not allowed to work from the office. ©Getty Images

Related tags: Malaysia, COVID-19

There is widespread confusion among Malaysia’s dietary supplement industry as to whether it is considered an essential service and production can continue under the country’s coronavirus lockdown.

Malaysia begun its two-week Movement Control Order (MCO) on March 18.

On the same day, the government issued a Federal Government Gazette titled “Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases Regulations 2020” which provided additional information on the essential services that could continue operations.

According to the gazette, essential services include water, oil, gas, health, pharmacies, supermarkets, and food etc.

However, there has been confusion as to whether dietary supplements fall under the category of essential services.

The president of Malaysian Dietary Supplement Association Muthu Kumar Shanmunghom told NutraIngredients-Asia ​that clearer distinction could have been made.

He said that there has been confusion amongst member companies as to whether they were allowed to operate.

“From the beginning, the government must make proper announcement on which is the essential industry.

He said the issue was that dietary supplements could fall under the health services category.

“There are still no very clear guidelines on whether dietary supplement fall under the essential services. Some say it is under the health services. 

“But health services are very broad, so which category under health services do dietary supplements belong to? Over here, health supplements fall under the pharmaceutical category,” ​he said, since the registration of health supplements fall under the National Pharmaceutical Regulatory Division, also part of the Ministry of Health Malaysia. 

According to the gazette, those who failed to abide by the directives could face a fine of not more than RM$1,000 (US$228) or jailed for not more than six months or both.

To run operations or not?

NutraIngredients-Asia ​spoke to dietary supplement brands Thomson Health, which specialises in gingko health products, and tocotrienol supplier ExcelVite to find out how the firms have coped with the first day of the MCO.

ExcelVite’s business development manager Bryan See said that factory operations, involving over 150 workers were running as per normal but acknowledged that there was indeed some confusion amongst workers on whether they were required to work.

See explained that the company continued operating as it fell under the essential services since it produced renewable energy for the local petroleum companies.

Since the production of the renewable energy is linked to the production of phytonutrients, the company is therefore producing its flagship tocotrienol nutrition ingredients such as EVNol SupraBio and EVTene at the same time. 

He added that the company has adopted safety precautions such as social distancing to protect the workers.

Thomson Health, on the other hand, has stopped its manufacturing operations but is enquiring with the government to find out if it can resume operations, according to marketing manager Benjamin Lim.

“In Malaysia, there is still a lot of uncertainty in that there may be some regulatory changes going on, so we are constantly keeping track of the news,” ​Lim said.

Challenges

Companies who spoke to us have identified a number of challenges, with Thomson Health identifying out on-time product supply as a key hurdle.

“Sales will still move because the pharmacies are still opened and consumers can still purchase the products online,”​ Lim said.

“The biggest challenge is the halt in manufacturing, that means our warehousing, QC control, and manufacturing are all at a standstill now.” 

Within Malaysia, Thomson Health’s products are sold in pharmacies, Chinese medical halls and online via e-commerce sites such as Lazada.

The company also sells its products to Singapore and has a presence in Indonesia – a market which it recently entered.

At present, if consumer demand in Malaysia and Singapore takes place as per normal, the remaining stocks held by the product distributors can still last for one to one-and-a-half-months, according to Lim.

If the company is not allowed to continue its factory operations, it is expected that there will be a delay in the release of its products to retailers.

See, on the other hand, said that the firm had contacted its overseas customers about Malaysia’s situation and has engaged logistics firms such as DHL to export the products.

“We have contacted our customers to share with them the situation in Malaysia so that they can give us their projection for the next three months just to avoid any delay and to ensure that we have and keep sufficient stocks for them.” ​ 

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