Speech by Mr. Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC at the Second Reading of the Sale of Food (Amendment) Bill [Bill No. 42/2017]
Sir, I welcome the amendments to the Sale of Food Act, which expands its purview to preventing misleading conduct in the sale of food and ensuring the provision of information to help consumers make informed choices.
On the issue of consumer empowerment, I would like to raise some concerns over business practices that affect decision-making over food for the most vulnerable consumers – infants.
Coverage of Act over Infant Formula
I understand that one of the objectives of the proposed amendments is to support initiatives of the Formula Milk Taskforce to tighten labeling requirements for infant formula.
One of the most vulnerable group of consumers are infants in hospitals and they are protected by this Act since the expanded meaning of “sell” in Section 2E does include “supplying of food in the course of providing services to patients in hospitals”.
In hospitals, I understand that a rotation system is used to provide infants with milk formulas. Majority of parents tend to continue with the brand of formula milk that their child was given in the hospitals.
An inquiry report by the Competition Commission of Singapore in May found that milk formula manufacturers invest significantly into marketing activities in hospitals to try to leverage on this.
The report stated, “In particular, the hospital channel receives a significantly higher share of marketing expenditure compared to its share of total revenue. Manufacturers provide sponsorship and/or payments to the private hospitals for participation in their milk rotation systems. Given that majority of parents who use Formula Milk in hospitals do not have a preferred brand and tend not to switch brands of Formula Milk after leaving the hospital, manufacturers have invested significant efforts and resources into the marketing activities in the hospital channel to gain a ‘first-mover’ advantage.”
Sir, I faced this problem when my babies were in hospital and in the initial stages, Poppy had to be given some milk formula. In my case, they were in a public hospital and not a private hospital. My wife and I had a preferred brand of milk formula we wanted to give Poppy but were not allowed to. We were told that we could use the brand that we wanted only when Poppy was discharged but were told that a switch in brands might affect the baby.
I do understand that the Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee Singapore (SIFECS) under the Health Promotion Board is looking into this. But we must bear in mind that they are looking to address this through reviewing its the Code of Ethics on the Sale of Infant Foods in Singapore. While I hope the review of the Code will address sponsorships and rotation fee practices, the Code is ultimately soft law and does not provide for penalties or consequences where the Code is breached.
As such, I would like to ask the Minister if the current proposed amendments to the Sale of Food Act could help to tackle this problem too.
While we seek to make amendments to prohibit idealised images and health claims on infant formula labels and advertisements, these amendments become redundant when parents do not have a choice of which infant formula is given to their infants in some hospitals.
Such practices by manufacturers which are calculated to get infants “hooked” onto their brands at an early stage and remove choices for parents to switch to cheaper alternatives seem to be contrary to the spirit of this Bill of empowering consumers in decision-making.
Can Minister clarify if the proposed expanded scope of the Sale of Food Act will allow it to address marketing and distribution practices by manufacturers and sellers that are intended to limit choices for particularly vulnerable groups of consumers?
I also note that section 56 has been amended to allow any food regulation to incorporate any matter contained in any code. Would the Ministry consider incorporating the Code of Ethics on the Sale of Infant Foods in Singapore as a food regulation to give it binding force of law?
In addition, can the Minister also clarify if the Act will cover the sale of food online? Even milk powder can be purchased online now and from outside of Singapore.
I appreciate this is not an easy area to regulate but as there is a trend towards buying things online and from overseas, do we have plans to regulate this under the Sale of Food Act?
Why the need for exemption
Lastly Sir, I would like to seek clarifications on the new Section 55. Why is there a need to grant exemptions from the operation of all or any of the provisions of the Act or the food regulations?
Can Minister provide some scenarios as to when these exemptions are needed or necessary? If there is really a need for such exemptions, may I suggest that a Board, which includes the Director General rather than just one person, make the decision on granting the exemption?
Sir, notwithstanding the above clarifications, I stand in support of this Bill.