In a country where innovation plays such a role in everyday life, at first sight it seems surprising that liquid infant formulae currently do not feature at all in the Japanese market.

Already popular in Europe and the United States thanks to the convenience they afford, Japanese consumers have to date had to rely solely on the powdered version. However, its absence is easily explained, and is entirely due to a lack of safety regulations for the product. The recent move by the government to formulate standards for production is believed to be a result of the success of liquid formula donated by Finland as emergency aid during the 2016 Kumamoto Prefecture earthquakes. As the formula didn’t rely on the availability of clean water to be safe, it prompted the ministry to begin studying ways to set standards for domestic production of the liquid form. The government is now drawing up draft regulations, although it is likely to be several years before the first liquid formulae appear on the commercial market.

Liquid formulae – packaged in aseptic cartons or plastic bottles – are popular in many markets due to their convenience. There is no need to measure powder, boil water, shake the bottle to mix (and often end up with lumps) and then wait for the formula to cool to the right temperature – simply pour the liquid milk into the bottle and warm (or serve at room temperature), and there are even liquid formulae in bottles that come with a nipple to make the process even easier. Added to this is the ease of use when on the go.

Powdered formula on the other hand is fiddly to prepare. There is a risk of over- or under-dilution, either of which can be harmful to growing babies. Hygienic preparation is also an issue, with the risk of contamination at each stage of the preparation process as well as the fact that opened cans of milk powder are stored for long periods. Powdered formula can even arrive in the shops contaminated, as witnessed in the recent outbreak caused by the presence of salmonella agona bacteria in infant formula produced by Lactalis.

So far so good for infant formula manufacturers.  However, on the downside, liquid formulae tend to command a higher price, and while Japanese consumers are generally affluent, there are concerns that these products will be unaffordable for the less wealthy.

Secondly, manufacturers need to be aware of the crowded state of urban Japan, which means that kitchens are small and storage space is at a premium. A 900g can of powdered formula is enough to feed a two-month old baby for a week, while the equivalent in liquid formula would mean storing five one litre packs for which there might simply not be space – or the need for frequent shopping trips. The weight of liquid formula is also a downside, making shopping on foot a challenge.

There is also an environmental argument against liquid formula, with its high volume meaning the carbon footprint to transport it is much higher than for powdered milk.

Manufacturers in Japan have managed to formulate their own answers to the convenience question. These include options such as stick packs which contain a measured amount of formula, now offered by most manufacturers, typically in 13g or 14g x 10 packs. Meiji has gone one step further with its raku-raku (easy-easy) cubes, sold in boxes containing plastic strips with a number of cubes of compressed powder, which dissolve easily in water, each cube making up to 40ml of milk. These have proved popular with parents and now account for around a quarter of Meiji’s infant formula sales.

When liquid formulae do hit the shelves, it is likely that demand will be limited, with small individual serving packs expected to be the most popular format due to their on-the-go appeal, and their relatively easy storage.

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