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Hard sell formula – new UK report exposes baby milk company strategies for undermining breastfeeding

Press release 22 February 2007

Baby Milk Action has launched a pamphlet Hard Sell Formula, exposing strategies used by baby food companies in the UK to promote sales of breastmilk substitutes (infant formula and follow-on formula). The exposé comes as UNICEF ranks the UK as the worst country amongst 22 industrialised countries to be a child. UNICEF comments on the importance of breastfeeding. Campaigners are calling for the Government to strengthen legislation implementing World Health Assembly marketing requirements for baby foods. The Hard Sell Formula pamphlet exposes the integrated marketing strategy used to get infants on the bottle.

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Start before they are born: They try to persuade pregnant women and mothers to sign up to receive information on infant care from the company by post and email. Techniques include advertisements, leaflets in doctors surgeries and promotion in supermarkets. Gifts and prizes are often offered. One company even targets mothers at birth registry offices. Companies have also used the Government’s Healthy Start scheme as a peg to push their products.

Co-opt health workers to promote brands: Health workers are offered training days and gifts and provided with leaflets to hand on to parents. Materials make dubious claims, for example that formula develops the immune system, brains and eyes and can help prevent colic or other illnesses. One company has even provided health workers with cards to give to mothers saying: “Babies don’t come with instructions. That’s why we’re here to help”. The phone number given is for the baby food company ‘careline’.

Bombard women with formula promotion: Monitoring has found companies now target women through fashion as well as parenting magazines. Companies suggest that formula is the same or nearly the same as breastfeeding – and according to a government survey over a third of women now believe this is true. Materials for feeding bottles rarely even have a ‘breast is best’ message in small print and instead suggest that bottles are an essential item and equivalent to breasts – or even better, because they enable other family members to have a go.

The pamphlet arises from monitoring conducted by volunteers trained by Baby Milk Action on behalf of the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG), a coalition of health worker and mother-support groups which is calling on the UK Government to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. In 2002 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child also called on the Government to take action and it is hoped that in 2007 the Government will deliver on a commitment to do so.

Mike Brady, who coordinated the monitoring exercise, said:

“The companies spend a fortune developing and executing these marketing strategies and earn their money back every time a mother is persuaded not to breastfeed, or turns to formula rather than a mother-support group if she runs into difficulties. Their strategy works and unless action is taken, efforts to improve knowledge of and support for breastfeeding will continue to have little impact.”

Sharon Chapman (Trustee) on behalf of the Breastfeeding Network, said:

“Seeing the volume of formula company promotion marketed directly to new mothers is truly shocking, we don’t think it helps mothers choose a brand of formula and we know it undermines breastfeeding. We have seen manufacturers and distributors using the new Government 'Healthy Start' initiative as a way of increasing sales and have even had examples of toddlers asking for this milk to be bought as they recognise it from the TV adverts. We urge the Government to fulfil it's commitment laid out in the Choosing Health White Paper which advocates healthy food choices. Action is urgently needed from the Government to protect breastfeeding and lift the UK off the bottom of the European league tables for breastfeeding.”

Contact: mikebrady<at>
Mobile: 07986 736179

Notes for editors

  1. The UK Baby Feeding Law Group is an adhoc group of health professional and lay organizations working to bring UK and EU legislation into line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent relevant WHA resolutions. Its members are: The Association of Breastfeeding Mothers, the Association for Improvements in the Maternity Services, the Association of Radical Midwives, Baby Milk Action, the Breastfeeding Network, the Food Commission, the Community Practitioners and Health Visitors’ Association, Lactation Consultants of Great Britain, La Leche League (GB), Midwives Information and Resource Service, the National Childbirth Trust, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Nursing, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health and the Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative.

  2. The UNICEF report on childhood in industrialised countries states: “Had adequate data been available, the percentage of infants who are breastfed up to six months of age would also have been included in this picture of child health in the first year of life. Apart from its unrivalled nutritional and immunological advantages in the earliest months, breast milk has also been associated with long-term advantages from improved cognitive development to reduced risk of heart disease. The percentage of infants being breast-fed in each country might also be interpreted as an indicator of the extent to which the results of today’s health research are put at the disposal of, and adopted by, the public at large. Unfortunately definitional problems and a lack of data for the majority of OECD countries led to the exclusion of this indicator (though it is worth noting in passing that available data on ‘at least partial breast-feeding at the age of six months’ show unusually wide variations across the OECD – from a high of 80% in Norway to a low of just over 10% in Belgium).” See:

  3. The UK has breastfeeding rates amongst the lowest in the industrialised world. As with other indicators in the UNICEF report, it is northern-European countries that do far better. Despite government commitments to improve breastfeeding rates there has been little change, with initiation rates of just 71%, meaning over a quarter of infants receive no breastmilk at all. Breastfeeding rates then decline rapidly as the promotion exposed in the Hard Sell Formula pamphlet undermines breastfeeding and encourages mothers to use formula. In the UK few infants are breastfed at 6 months. Government figures show just 42% are breastfed at 6 WEEKS.

  4. In its Public Health White Paper, Choosing Health, the Government stated: “Further action will include the review of the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations (1995) with a view to further restrict the advertising of infant formula. We will continue to press for amendments to the EU Directive on infant formula and follow-on formula.” While the Government did push for changes to the EU Directive, its efforts largely failed. However, legal experts agree that the Directive does not prevent the Government taking action to protect health by introducing World Health Assembly marketing requirements in UK law. 5. In 1995 when the Tory government introduced the UK law, Tony Blair MP, then leader of the opposition, tabled a motion in Parliament stating: “That this House is alarmed at the decision taken recently by Health Ministers to put commercial interests before infant health when it refused to ban the advertising of infant formula in the United Kingdom…”

  5. A Department of Health survey in 2004 found that 34% of mothers incorrectly believed that modern infant formula milks are very similar or the same as breast milk (see ‘Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life’


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