The Hong Kong government has announced that export controls on baby milk formula will remain in place as parallel trading activity persists.

The policy was implemented in March 2013 following protests over the mass purchase of baby milk powder in Hong Kong by Chinese tourists and parallel traders. Shelves were emptied owing to safety concerns over such products in the mainland.

A new regulation was implemented prohibiting people from exporting milk formula for infants and young children under 36 months from Hong Kong, except for those with a licence issued by the government director-general of trade and industry. The measure was put in place to ensure the supply for local parents.

File Photo: RFA.

For those who purchase formula milk for personal use, each person aged 16 or over may carry a total net weight of 1.8 kilograms of baby milk powder – the equivalent of around two cans – on their departure from Hong Kong within each 24-hour period.

On Monday, the Food and Health Bureau announced that it had reviewed the policy and it would be maintained: “We expect that the potential non-local demand for powdered formulae in the local market will remain huge. In fact, the volume of powdered formulae re-exported from Hong Kong through normal trading activities has increased significantly since the implementation of the export control in 2013,” a spokesperson for the bureau said in a press release.

“Meanwhile, the number of convicted cases in breach of the export control has maintained at around 3,800 per year since 2016. No downward trend has been seen. These show that parallel trading activities on powdered formulae are still persistent.”

Parallel traders stockpiling formula milk. File

The bureau conducted six market surveys last year covering pharmacies and chain stores selling baby milk powder across the city. The results showed that fieldworkers were able to immediately buy the designated products nine-tenths of the time at retail outlets during random sampling.

During the occasions when fieldworkers could not buy the designated products, they were still able to buy the same products at other outlets within a five-minute walk.

“The export control has a significant role in safeguarding the stable supply of powdered formulae at local retail outlets. The stable supply of powdered formulae over the past few years has put local parents at ease. There are no other measures which can easily replace the export control at this stage,” the bureau said.

Parallel trading 

Chief Secretary Matthew Cheung told reporters on Monday that the review showed that non-local demand for milk formula was still high.

“Therefore, after considering all factors, we believe it is necessary to maintain the status quo,” he said. “The Customs and Excise Department will continue to combat parallel trading activities.”

Formula milk cans at a pharmacy. File

Civic Party lawmaker Kwok Ka-ki welcomed the government’s decision. He said there were still many parallel traders packing cans of milk on pavements in Tuen Mun and Tin Shui Wai.

“Hong Kong should protect the needs of local babies and not help parallel traders,” he said.

However, wholesale and retail sector lawmaker Shiu Ka-fai of the pro-business Liberal Party said he did not understand why the government did not cancel export controls.

Shiu said the Hong Kong General Chamber of Pharmacy and formula milk suppliers have plans to ensure a supply for local babies whereby parents would be able to buy milk formula within 48 hours of placing an order.

“The government is placing political concerns over the free market,” he said.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.