Expensive formula milk: by choice or no choice?

May 29, 2017 07.00PM |

by Deanna Nabilah

ARE parents to blame for expensive formula milk?

Despite the spike in prices, 95 per cent of formula milk buyers opt for premium powder whereas 5 per cent of them opt for standard brands. The New Paper reported (May 11) that this willingness to pay for premium brands has contributed to a 120 per cent increase in average prices over the last decade.

The Competition Commission of Singapore (CCS) released a report on May 10 about its market inquiry, with cross-references of prices against other countries, such as Australia and the UK. Singapore has higher formula milk prices than any of these countries.

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Did demand fuel the price hike, or is there another reason why premium formula commands such a massive market share?

After visiting four local supermarkets, we found that there were 27 premium formula milk brands and two non-premium formula milk brands for infants aged zero to 12 months on average at each supermarket. The non-premium formula milk available in these supermarkets are Nestle’s Lactogen and Dumex’s Dugro and Dupro. Even Sheng Siong, a supermarket known for its economical goods, does not offer a wide range of non-premium formula milk.

Formula milk brands widely available in Singapore are made by Abbott, Danone, FrieslandCampina, Karihome, Mead Johnson Nutrition, Nestle, and Wyeth. All of them supply premium formula milk brands. However, certain companies, notably Dumex and Nestle, also sell non-premium ranges. Dumex’s line of premium formula milk is Mamil Gold, whereas its non-premium line consists of Dupro and Dugro. A count of products on the shelves points to a lack of choice – parents can’t pick non-premium formula milk because it’s not available.


Table 1: Premium and non-premium formula milk brands (SKUs) in four supermarkets. An SKU is a distinct product on the shelf (different brand, package size, stage, etc)


Table 2: Types of premium formula milk brands (SKUs) in four supermarkets

A breakdown of the premium formula milk brands sold in these supermarkets indicates that Similac, a brand under Abbott, is the most widely available premium formula milk. The brand was recently called out for misleading advertising. The acronym “IQ”, which is plastered on its formula milk tins, stands for “intestinal quality” instead of the conventional “intelligence quotient”. Such misleading advertising fuels demand for a product based on the assumption that it enhances desired attributes in infants.

Fairprice and Cold Storage are also looking to bring in new formula milk brands to expand alternative sourcing options. Fairprice will have new formula milk brands by the end of next month, the Straits Times reported (May 22). The chain hopes to bring in its house brand as well in the future. FairPrice chief executive Seah Kian Peng acknowledged the spike in prices and is determined to “alleviate some of the costs” with the FairPrice FairMily Kit, which was announced on Saturday (May 21). The kit includes formula milk for infants above six months old.

Formula milk sold at Sheng Siong supermarket (Commonwealth)

In February this year, a $1.5 million scheme called the NTUC FairPrice Foundation-CDC Milk Fund was also launched to help low-income families. Under the scheme, families will receive milk fund vouchers, which can be used for any brand of formula milk at FairPrice supermarkets. The vouchers will expire on Aug 31 next year, after which the scheme will be reviewed. Mr Seah said that the fund will likely be a long-term fixture.

Despite alleviating the costs of formula milk, the fund fails to address the issue of the lack of choices available to buyers. Furthermore, families that do not qualify for the fund will have to continue purchasing premium formula milk brands for an indefinite time as these brands dominate the shelves of supermarkets.


Why are prices increasing?

The main factors behind the price hike, says the CCS, are the heavy investment in marketing and research and development (R&D) by manufacturers to build a premium brand image. 

Manufacturers continually add new ingredients to formula milk and claim that they enhance desired attributes in infants, such as mental development. Parents buy into this tactic despite the Ministry of Health (MOH), Health Promotion Board (HPB), and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) stating that these nutritional claims have weak scientific evidence.

Aggressive marketing tactics in the form of advertising and sponsorships with private hospitals accompany this R&D. Nutritional claims and aspirational outcomes plastered on tins of formula milk sway parents into buying formula milk that is positioned as “premium”. Manufacturers provide sponsorships to private hospitals to ensure that their brands stay as the default formula for a longer time under the milk rotation programme, which provides first-mover advantage as parents usually stick to the formula milk that was given to their baby at hospitals.

However, some private hospitals have taken a different approach by signing up for the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI). BFHI-certified hospitals must implement practices that promote and protect breastfeeding. Currently there are no BFHI private hospitals but Mount Alvernia Hospital, Raffles Hospital and Thomson Medical Centre say they are working towards achieving the certification.


What does the G have to say about this?

AVA has responded to CCS’ recommendations by broadly implementing three measures: adjusting regulations on advertising and import of formula milk, strengthening public education efforts, and encouraging hospitals to provide stronger support for breastfeeding.

The first measure involves the Sale of Infant Foods Ethics Committee, Singapore (SIFECS) extending its coverage of Code of Ethics to infants up to 12 months of age instead of six months. The code currently restricts advertising of formula milk for infants below six months only. AVA will also impose stricter regulations on formula milk labelling to prohibit the use of idealised images through nutritional claims.

HPB will be strengthening public education efforts through a multi-year campaign on children’s nutritional needs. The campaign will be up and running by the end of May 2017.


More help given to parents

With the extensive requirements put in place, it’s hard to expand the range of milk brands in Singapore. For example, there are import documentation requirements that are challenging for parallel importers to comply with because only labels in English are allowed. Importers must also submit documentation from the manufacturers they are obtaining their supplies from in order to import these supplies.

Hence, AVA is reviewing formula milk import regulations and streamlining import requirements to ensure that more milk options are readily available. Senior Minister of State and Trade and Industry Koh Poh Koon said (May 8) that the G will ensure the removal of unnecessary barriers to entry to provide more options.

But at the end of the day, the heart wants what it wants. Premiumisation strategies work because parents are easy targets that are susceptible to marketing. The formula milk industry recognises this and has built itself on this foundation. On top of that, with an abundance of premium formula milk here, no one wants to be the odd one out and buy anything remotely different, even if one can barely afford it.


Featured image by Deanna Nabilah.

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