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Thirty years on from the first concrete steps to regulate the baby milk industry - experts reflect as industry 'fights a rearguard' action

Press release 13 October 2009

Thirty years of campaigning to protect babies from aggressive marketing by the baby food industry was marked at an international meeting in Geneva on 12 October 2009, also celebrating the 30th birthday of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).
IBFAN 30 years old

Representatives from IBFAN groups across Europe, including Baby Milk Action from the UK, joined with partners from Africa and Asia, some of their predecessors and special guests close to the United Nations (UN) and World Health Organisation (WHO) buildings to hear of successes and challenges from a panel of distinguished experts.

Following a Senate Hearing held by the late Senator Edward Kennedy in 1978 the drafting of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes began in 1979 at a meeting convened by WHO and UNICEF. Six civil society organisations at that meeting formed IBFAN, that has grown to over 200 groups in more than 100 countries today.

A telling indication of the difficulty in protecting infant health came in quotes from a Euromonitor analysis of the industry referred to at the meeting that predicts the global baby food market will grow to US$42.7 billion by 2013. Euromonitor refers to marketing regulations as an 'impediment to growth' and states: "The industry is fighting a rearguard action against regulation on a country-by-country basis".

Key-note speaker, Professor Zulfiqar A. Bhutta (co-author Child Survival series, The Lancet and The Aga Khan University, Pakista) related the latest statistics. In countries where most under-5 deaths occur, infants who are not breastfed are 14.7% more likely to die than breastfed children. The Child Survival series estimates that 1.3 million children could be saved every year in these countries by improving breastfeeding rates, a more effective intervention than provision of safe water, sanitation and vaccination.

During the two-year drafting process that began in 1979 the industry, led by Nestlé, opposed strong measures and said of the version adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981: "The World Industry has found this present draft code unacceptable.... irrelevant and unworkable."

The industry lobby had to be countered by IBFAN. Thirty years later, despite the industry's "rearguard action against regulation on a country-by-country basis", the Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly have been implemented fully or nearly fully in 64 countries according to the latest State of the Code chart launched at the meeting by IBFAN's International Code Documentation Centre.

Patti Rundall OBE, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action and involved in the campaign since before the adoption of the International Code and Resolutions, said:

On days like this it is good to remember that many lives have been saved by the work of IBFAN, our partners and many, many people around the world who have supported our work and the boycott of Nestlé, the worst of the companies. There is still much to do. IBFAN monitoring uncovers new strategies that violate the Code and Resolutions. The industry is also consolidating with Danone challenging Nestlé aggressively to out grow and overtake it. We also have to defend repeatedly the gains that have been achieved.

IBFAN received birthday wishes from around the world. Those from the UK included:

"IBFAN has done a tremendous job in the promotion and protection of breastfeeding in the last 30 years. Congratulations on your birthday!"

Jasmine Whitbread, Chief Executive, Save the Children UK.

"War on Want is proud to have been one of the first organisations to lead the fight against multinational baby food companies. Our 1974 report, 'The Baby Killer', drew attention to the irresponsible promotion of breastmilk substitutes in the developing world, and its devastating impact on child health. War on Want congratulates IBFAN on maintaining the struggle over the past 30 years. May we and all the world's children see many more victories in the years to come."

John Hilary, Executive Director, War on Want.

"The CPHVA is proud to have had such a long association with IBFAN, the Baby Feeding Law group and to have endorsed the Nestle Boycott. We at CPHVA value the organisational networks which assist with our philosophy of endeavouring to impact upon National and International policies which have negative outcomes for children and young people. Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding is at the heart of public health principles and all Health Visitors and their teams do their utmost to assist parents and in particular mothers in breastfeeding. We wish you a very happy birthday and a stimulating round table discussion."

Angela Roberts, Chair NPC CPHVA/Unite.

Patti Rundall on: 07786 523493 or

Mike Brady: Tel: +44 7986 736179.

Notes for editors

Speakers included:

  • David Hiler (Geneva Canton),

  • Professor Zulfiqar A. Bhutta (co-author Child Survival series, The Lancet and The Aga Khan University, Pakistan),

  • Gabrielle Palmer (author of “The Politics of Breastfeeding”),

  • Annelies Allain (IBFAN International Code Documentation Centre) and

  • Andrew Chetley (Healthlink Worldwide).

A question and answer panel had representatives from UNICEF, WHO, UNHCR, Emergency Nutrition Network and the Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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