Submission on the "Legislative Proposals Relating to Formula Products and Foods Intended for Infants and Young Children under the Age of 36 Months in Hong Kong"

4 February 2013
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Support for mandatory nutrition labelling

1. The Consumer Council welcomes the Government's legislative proposals in relation to nutrition labelling of formula products and foods intended for infants and young children under the age of 36 months.

2. The Council is of the view that a mandatory nutrition labelling regime promotes informed consumer choice conducive to better public health.

3. In its 2003 submission to the Government, the Council already suggested that the scope of the then proposed labelling scheme on nutrition information be expanded to cover infant and baby formula and foods for infants and young children. Notwithstanding the Council's suggestion, the existing Nutrition Labelling Scheme does not apply to formula products or foods intended for infants and young children under the age of 36 months. The Council considers that the current legislative proposals which adopt the Codex requirements can fill the gap and assist parents to make informed food choices for their infants and young children.

Nutritional composition requirement

4. In a Council Study on baby snacks (issue # 382 of Choice magazine published in August 2008), two of the snack samples - a cracker and a cookie samples - were found to contain sodium in excess of the Codex Standard for Processed Cereal-Based Foods for Infants and Young Children, which prescribes a limit of not more than 100 mg/100 kcal of ready-to-eat products. The cracker sample had 189 mg/100 kcal of sodium which is 89% higher than the Codex standard, and the cookie product had sodium content of 109 mg/100 kcal being 9% exceeding the Codex standard. Though an essential mineral in the body, sodium in excessive amount can raise blood pressure and lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases. This is particularly serious with infants and young children, as their kidney cannot cope with large amounts of salt.

5. In the same Study the total sugars content of the samples was also examined. They were found to vary over a vast range from 3.4 g/100 g to 36 g/100 g of food, a difference of over 10 times. Extreme values were also found in the teething biscuits. As high intake of added sugars threatens the overall nutrient quality of diets for infants and young children by providing significant energy but without supplying specific nutrients, risk of unhealthy weight gain in infants and young children increases.

6. Under the current Government legislative proposals, nutritional composition requirement would be imposed on infant formula only. The Council notes the reasons given by the Government for not imposing nutritional composition requirement on follow-up formula and foods intended for infants and young children under the age of 36 months. The Council, however, believes that the long-standing Codex composition standard for follow-up formula can still serve good reference value if adopted for such products in Hong Kong, and the requirement can be revised after implementation subject to a process of review. For the healthy growth and development of local infants and young children, the Council is of the view that Codex nutritional composition requirement on follow-up formula and foods intended for infants and young children under the age of 36 months should also be followed.

Labelling of sodium content in non-cereal-based foods for infants and young children

7. Though Codex does not have mandatory labelling requirement on sodium in all non-cereal-based foods for infants and young children under the age of 36 months, the Council considers the restriction of sodium intake by infants and young children important and thus the labelling of sodium content on food products will be very helpful to parents to facilitate a well informed purchase. As labelling of sodium content in food products is quite common in overseas countries, the Council suggests imposing mandatory nutrition labelling requirement of sodium in all foods (including non-cereal-based foods) intended for infants and young children under the age of 36 months.

Regulation of claims

8. The Council is disappointed that the Government is postponing regulation on claims to a later stage.

9. Claims made about the nature, content and functions of food in relation to their nutrition and health effects could be influential for consumers for making food choices, given the fact that those claims are heavily advertised and marketed by the suppliers. These claims should therefore be true and not misleading. The Council considers it important for the government to regulate claims (both nutrition and health claims) made by formula product and food suppliers.

10. In a Council Study on the claims made by various formulas on the ingredients that were heavily advertised, the Council found that some of the claims might be exaggerated and even misleading (issue # 421 of Choice magazine published in November 2011). In another joint study by the Council and the Centre for Food Safety on nutrition labelling and related claims of prepackaged foods for children under 36 months old, 4 health claims involving 4 samples were found to lack support by internationally recognized scientific evidence (issue # 426 of Choice magazine published in April 2012).

11. The Council urges the government to take prompt measures to prohibit exaggerated and misleading claims made by formula product and food suppliers. The Council is of the view that it will benefit both the industry and consumers if the Government could make accessible to the public information on health claims which are regarded scientifically substantiated (a "white list" of claims). Moreover, the Government should consider whether the industry should be required to submit their health claims to the Government for approval prior to making and / or labeling them in relation to the products introduced into the Hong Kong market.

Time frame of implementation

12. The Council urges for the implementation process to be expedited so that consumers and parents do not need to wait for years before the mandatory labelling and composition requirements come into effect. As nutritional composition and labelling regulations have existed in many countries, many suppliers should have the relevant experiences and information to meet the requirements fairly quickly.