16 Jul 2013 07:54

WELLINGTON, July 15 (Bernama) -- A body representing leading New Zealand and Australian infant formula makers will be stepping up efforts to promote the integrity of products exported to China when it attends a major industry event in China this week.

Infant Nutrition Council (INC) CEO Jan Carey told China's Xinhua news agency that the INC would be meeting with trade partners and discussing the INC objectives of maintaining industry standards when it attends the Shanghai Children-Baby-Maternity Products Expo from July 17 to 19.

The move comes as New Zealand authorities tighten regulations on infant formula exporters after concerns raised in Chinese media about the reliability of some brands and products appearing in the Chinese market, and as Chinese authorities conduct their own investigations into infant formula companies.

Carey said the INC would continue to work with the Australian and New Zealand governments to implement initiatives to ensure supply chain integrity and food safety standards in the manufacture of infant formula.

The INC was supporting the New Zealand government's approach to protect the country's reputation as a producer of safe food products.

"New Zealand's decision to audit the verification, compliance, and testing regimes in place for infant formula is an example of the serious approach being taken to ensure that what goes out with a New Zealand-made label on it is of the quality and standard that provides good alternative nutrition to breastfeeding for babies and infants," Carey said in an e-mail interview.

"INC also supports the initiatives of authorities in China to tighten control over the companies that manufacture and sell infant formula, since it is such a sensitive product and so important to the health of babies."

The INC was also concerned about "false and misleading claims" in infant formula marketing, Carey said.

"INC is about providing the best nutrition for babies and understands that the optimal nutrition for babies is breast milk. Infant formula is the only suitable substitute when a baby is not able to have breast milk," she said.

Australia, New Zealand and China were all signatories to the 1981 World Health Organisation (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which required the promotion of breast feeding and "adequate information" through "appropriate marketing" on the proper use of breast milk substitutes.

All INC members marketed their products in Australia and New Zealand in line with local interpretations of the WHO Code, said Carey.

"Outside of Australia and New Zealand in export markets, all INC members market their infant formula products with an understanding of and adherence to the aim of the WHO Code. In other words, breast is best and formula is not marketed to imply that it is as good as or even better than breast milk," she said.

Chinese consumers could have confidence that INC member companies were adhering to "extremely strict" Australian and New Zealand food safety standards and regulations that ensure product traceability "throughout the supply chain," said Carey.

"INC conducts a background check on the owners and shareholders of member companies to ensure they are the kind of people who will adhere both to INC's values and Food Standards Australia New Zealand's rigorous food safety standards. This helps to ensure the integrity of INC and that all its members are reputable."

Last month, the INC warned that "inexperienced companies" were endangering the reputation of New Zealand infant formula in China as media reports highlighted their "lack of basic supply chain integrity."

The New Zealand industry needed a united approach to prevent " short-term opportunism" and marketing that exploited the fears of parents for commercial gain, it warned.

The INC claims the products of its members, who include global food giants such as Bayer, HJ Heinz, Nestle, Nutricia and Fonterra, represent more than 95 percent of the volume of infant formula sold in Australia and New Zealand, including all major supermarket brands.

In June, New Zealand Food Safety Minister Nikki Kaye said she had asked the Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) to undertake an audit to identify any areas for improvement, including verification, compliance and testing regimes.

She had also ordered a check that New Zealand's Overseas Market Access Requirements (OMARs) were in line with changes being introduced in China's regulations for infant formula.

The MPI also introduced a brand register for infant formula manufactured in New Zealand to ensure the integrity of New Zealand branded products in China, but there were possibly other improvements that could be made, she said.

The MPI was also asked to investigate mechanisms to better collaborate and communicate with markets in Asia, particularly China, in areas such as science and labeling.

New Zealand's infant formula exports are estimated at about 600 million NZ dollars (US$467.98 million) a year, with approximately 170 million NZ dollars of that going to China.

Cans of imported formula reportedly fetch up to 70 NZ dollars each in China and more than 200 brands are estimated to be produced in New Zealand, but most of them are produced at contract manufacturing plants.