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Hong Kong runs dry on formula milk

Publication Date : 02-02-2013


Got milk? Yes, the government assures parents here as it moves to crack down on mainland parallel traders who snap up baby formula milk here to resell for high profit in China.

Their buying spree sparked a shortage in recent weeks of some brands of milk powder - popular ones here are Friso, Abbott and Mead Johnson - as parents both in Hong Kong and the mainland rush to stock up ahead of the Chinese New Year holidays.

The brouhaha over formula milk is the latest in a series of spats between irate Hong Kongers and enterprising parallel traders exploiting a legal loophole.

By physically transporting products - ranging from geoduck clams to smartphones - via trolleys to neighbouring Shenzhen, the traders avoid paying the usual tariffs on imported goods. The government has said that plugging this loophole would penalise genuine tourists.

But to thwart parallel traders, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing Man said yesterday that the law will be amended to allow anyone leaving Hong Kong to take only two cans - or up to 1.8kg - of milk powder with them.

The new limit, Dr Ko said, will strike a balance between placing limits on parallel traders and meeting the needs of travelling parents. It will require amending the Import and Export Ordinance, which could be completed this month, he added.

Meanwhile, MTR Corp, which operates trains connecting Hong Kong to the border with mainland China, will cut the maximum luggage weight allowance from 32kg to 23kg for a three-month trial, said Anthony Cheung, Secretary for Transport and Housing. The weight limit will also restrict the amount of products that can be trundled into Shenzhen.

A hotline for parents to place advance orders is also being set up.

Baby formula milk is an especially attractive commodity as it can be resold at high profit margins. Mainland parents are willing to pay more for formula milk from Hong Kong after a series of food scandals such as that in 2008 when six babies died from drinking melamine-tainted milk.

But soon, anyone entering the mainland will be entitled - besides the duty-free allowance of 200 cigarettes and one bottle of spirits - to just two cans of milk.

The run on milk powder here had led to empty shelves in supermarkets, especially those in the New Territories near the border with mainland China.

Some irate Hong Kongers even sought to appeal for "international aid" from United States President Barack Obama against mainland "smugglers", in a petition on the White House website.

Titled Baby Hunger Outbreak In Hong Kong, International Aid Requested, the petition said: "We request for international support and assistance as babies in Hong Kong will face malnutrition very soon."

It bears the signatures of some 14,000 people. But the number has to reach 100,000 within a month to trigger a response from the Obama administration.

If so, this would cause much embarrassment to Beijing and the Hong Kong government, and yesterday, the latter acted quickly to defuse the potential fiasco.

The restriction on milk exports - which will affect parents flying out of Hong Kong to, say, Canada - may be a sledgehammer approach, but to anxious parents, it could not have come any sooner.

Fennie Lin, 39, a marketing director, was relieved that steps had been taken to address a problem that she said has festered over the past couple of years but which has worsened in recent weeks.

The mother of three, including a seven-month-old baby, said that one out of every three trips to her neighbourhood supermarket at the Mid-levels for milk ended with her leaving empty-handed.

"I totally agree with the measures," she said. "Already, I am diversifying the brands we use, but still, there's not enough. It's ridiculous."


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