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New study shows company promotion of baby milk is misleading mothers

19 September 2005

(Reports: Reuters)

A study launched today by the National Childbirth Trust (NCT) and UNICEF UK shows that baby milk marketing is misleading mothers (click here for details). Interviews conducted with 1,000 pregnant women and new mothers by polling organisation MORI revealed, in summary, that:

  • The majority of women (60%) believed they had seen infant formula advertising even though it's been banned for ten years

  • Around a third said the advertising gave the impression that infant formula milk was ‘as good as' or ‘better than' breastmilk

  • Nearly one in five mothers (17%) who used follow-on milk said they started before their baby was three months old – even though it's unsuitable for children of this age

NCT, UNICEF, Baby Milk Action and leading UK health worker organisations are members of the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG), formed to campaign for the UK Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 1995 to be brought into line with the World Health Assembly (WHA) marketing requirements for baby foods (the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions).

The existing UK law allows promotion of follow-on milks, which are used to promote the full range of milks including infant formula. The BFLG monitoring project provides examples of company strategies (click here - includes high resolution pictures of malpractice).

Although many of the baby food company marketing practices are of dubious legality, enforcement authorities have only brought one prosecution (in 2003 against SMA, which was convicted of a 'cynical and deliberate breach' of the regulations - click here) and the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has refused to investigate and publish a ruling into the cases reported to it. (Click here for a case study of the failure of authorities to act over Farley's TV advertising).

The BFLG monitoring project has also found widespread and recurring illegal promotion of infant formula by retailers such as Asda, Boots, Morrisons and Tesco. While Trading Standards officers have given warnings to supermarkets, no prosecutions have been brought (click here for evidence). Baby Milk Action supporters have written to retailers asking for illegal activity to stop and for the WHA measures to be respected, but the responses received show retailers are not taking their responsibilities seriously (click here for responses from retailers) and do not plan to make any changes unless the law is stengthened.

In 2002 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the government to implement the WHA measures in UK legislation (click here). No action has as yet been taken as the government says it is first pressing for revisions to the EU directive from which the UK law is derived.

Baby Milk Action's Policy Director, Patti Rundall OBE, said:

"This new survey shows clearly that the European Commission must start listening to  Member States, European Parliamentarians and the thousands of NGOs, who have been calling for greater protection for infant health.  It is imperative that it strengthens the European Directive which sets the benchmark for marketing standards in the UK and throughout Europe.

"Parents and infants and young children in the European Union (and those in countries where EU products are exported) have a right to the protection from commercial exploitation and the Commission has a responsibility to help Governments fulfil these obligations, not hamper them, as it is now doing.

"The Commission's proposals are appalling and open the door for a flood of health claims and other promotions on infant formula and follow-on formulas, pandering to the interests of the baby food industry and expanding the market for them."

Baby Milk Action represents IBFAN on the Commission's  European Platform for Action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health  which provides a forum for discussion for the key players in the food industry and NGO sector, and aims to halt the rise in obesity in Europe. Clearly one section of the  Commission acknowledges the importance of breastfeeding and sound infant and young child feeding and  the risks of artificial infant feeding to both short and long term health 4 and its role in the rise of obesity.  In the background papers for the Platform the Commission has promised to examine all its policies for ‘obesity proofing ' The Commission 's proposals on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes fly in the face of the aims of this initiative.

A seven-year study, just completed by the WHO, shows that babies exclusively breastfed for six months are healthier and leaner than artificially fed babies.

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