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Advertising Standards Authority ruling shows contempt for UN Committee on the Rights of the Child by clearing Cow & Gate 'laughing babies' formula milk advertisement

Press release 22 October 2008

Relating to ASA ruling published today at:

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child issued a report on 3 October which criticised the UK government for failing to enforce minimum standards for the marketing of baby milk. Today (22 October), three weeks later, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), an industry self-regulatory body responsible for television and print advertising in the UK, is rejecting complaints against a television advertisement for Cow & Gate formula which breaches those same regulations.

The advertisement featured laughing babies and claims that using the formula protects babies against infection. In truth, babies fed on the formula are at more risk of short and long-term illness than the biological norm of breastfed babies. Cow & Gate is now owned by Danone, which promised a 'root and branch' review of marketing practices prior to the advertisments appearance.

Advertising of breastmilk substitutes is prohibited by the marketing requirements.

A screen shot of the advertisement, which also appeared on the company website, is shown right.

Cow & Gate screen shot

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action which registered a complaint about the advertisement, said:

This latest ruling from the ASA demonstrates the contempt shown by the regulatory authorities in the UK for child rights. The ruling is a contemptuous response to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child after it called for action to enforce minimum international standards for the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. The advertisement does not provide useful, truthful information, but is inspired by a popular youtube clip and has the purpose of misleading parents so as to sell more formula.

Our complaint concerned the rights of parents to accurate information about formula, but for its own reasons the industry-funded ASA has misrepresented it as being about defending breastfeeding alone. We campaign to protect babies fed on formula, as well as to protect breastfeeding. It is also disappointing that Danone's so-called review of marketing practices has seen a drop in standards.

Implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly is seen as necessary under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. After analyzing government and civil society reports, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child concluded in its report on the UK (paragraphs 58 and 59):

The Committee, while appreciating the progress made in recent years in the promotion and support of breastfeeding in the State party, it is concerned that implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes continues to be inadequate and that aggressive promotion of breastmilk substitutes remains common.

The Committee recommends that the State party implement fully the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The State party should also further promote baby-friendly hospitals and encourage that breastfeeding is included in nursery training.

The aim of the Code and Resolutions is to protect breastfeeding and ensure the proper use of breastmilk substitutes when these are necessary. It prohibits companies from promoting products to the public and limits them to providing scientific and factual information to health workers and accurate information on labels. However, violations in the UK are systematic. A particular concern is that companies are failing to warn parents that powdered formula is not sterile and the simple steps that are required to reduce risks from possible contamination with harmful bacteria such as Salmonella and Enterobacter Sakazakii. See:

Governments that have committed themselves to the Convention on the Rights of the Child have to present evidence of measures taken to bring it into effect every five years. Implementing the Code and Resolutions is seen as necessary to comply with Article 24. Baby Milk Action also presents evidence through the Children's Rights Alliance for England (CRAE) and its partner, the Geneva Infant Feeding Association (GIFA - a fellow member of the International Baby Food Action Network - IBFAN).

Baby Milk Action submitted evidence to the Committee on the Rights of the Child from a monitoring project it coordinates on behalf of the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG), a coalition of health workers and mother support groups, and is today releasing its latest quarterly monitoring report, which includes analysis of the Cow & Gate advertisement, the launch of Heinz 'Nurture' formula, Nestlé's attempts to break into the mass UK formula market and other breaches of the marketing requirements. The examples selected are believed to breach the weaker UK regulations. Quarterly reports are being produced to expose new company strategies and demonstrate the action - or lack of it - from enforement authorities. The report can be downloaded by clicking:

In its 2002 report the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the UK government to: "adopt the International Code for Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes."

The BFLG contributed a report Protecting breastfeeding - Protecting baies fed on formula to a government consultation in 2007 reviewing the UK law, known as the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations and called for these to be brought into line with the International Code and Resolutions. The government ignored this and the advice of its own expert Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition in favour of the industry appeal that it make only minimal changes to the law, such as legitimizing some of the health claims that were being used illegally on formula labels.

Conscious that it had failed to respond to the recommendations of health advocates and its own advisors, the government promised to keep the regulations under review. Baby Milk Action has submitted quarterly monitoring reports to the review, Trading Standards officers responsible for enforcing the regulations and the ASA.

The International Code and Resolutions are minimum requirements for all countries. Article 11.3 of the Code clearly states:

Independently of any other measures taken for implementation of this Code, manufacturers and distributors of products within the scope of this Code should regard themselves as responsible for monitoring their marketing practices according to the principles and aim of this Code, and for taking steps to ensure that their conduct at every level conforms to them.

Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action commented:

The ASA advertising code requires advertisements to be 'decent, honest and truthful' not just 'legal' and we take that to mean they should comply with international minimum standards that are directed to baby food companies.

We have brought the ASA failure to enforce the advertising code to the attention of the independent adjudicator, Sir John Caines, in the past, but he has been dismissive of our concerns and refused to act. I hope the condemnation of the Committee on the Rights of the Child will prompt a change of opinion. How many more times will the UK have to be condemned for failing to protect child rights before it introduces the marketing requirements first adopted in 1981?

Further information

Contact Mike Brady on 020 3239 9222 or mikebrady(at)


Patti Rundall on 07786 523493 or prundall(at)

Notes for editors

  1. Baby Milk Action, perhaps best known for promoting a boycott of Nestlé (the worst of the baby food companies on a global scale), initiated a UK monitoring project in 2004 on behalf of the BFLG, with help from a grant from the King's Fund which contributed to training a team of monitors. The project is now funded by individual donations.

  2. The ASA incorrectly summarises Baby Milk Action's complaint as being about the advertisement undermining breastfeeding. The actual complaint was that the advertisement is misleading about the properites of the formula and was as follows:
    The advertisement promotes the Cow & Gate website and infant and follow-on formula brand name. It features laughing babies and has written text that idealises the use of formula, for example stating: "Do I look like I need more vitamins and iron?", "Do I look like my tummy's unhappy?", "Do I look like I'm worried by others people's germs and sniffles?". This hides the fact that babies fed on infant formula or follow-on formula are more likely to become sick with gastro-entiritis, respiratory infections and other illnesses than infants fed on breastmilk, which is recommended in the UK beyond 6 months (the age at which follow-on milks are labelled for use) and into the second year of life and beyond. Voice over and other text further idealises Cow & Gate follow-on formula, which is specifically shown being bottle fed (making it clear it is a breastmilk substitute, as a bottle is a substitute breast). Text claims that the formula contains "key nutrients", helps promote "healthy digestion", helps support some "natural defences". The formula is branded 'complete care' which hides the fact that it does not provide complete care in the same way as breastfeeding, which contains anti-bodies and other protective factors and other ingredients important for development that are not contained in the formula. The final voice over and text states: "Because healthy babies are happy babies" which again hides the fact that babies fed on the formula are more likely to become sick. The website promoted on the advertisement as a source of further information advertises infant formula, branded identically to that shown in the advertisement. Advertising of infant formula is illegal under the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007. In addition to our own concerns, we have received complaints from members of the public regarding this advertisement through the Baby Feeding Law Group website:"

  3. Article 1 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes states: "The aim of this Code is to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breastmilk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution."

  4. The UK has breastfeeding rates amongst the lowest in the industrialised world. Despite government commitments to improve breastfeeding rates there has been little change, with initiation rates of just 76%, meaning a quarter of infants receive no breastmilk at all. Breastfeeding rates then decline rapidly as the promotion exposed in Baby Milk Action’s recently launched 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 48% are breastfed at 6 WEEKS. According to government figures, 90% of mothers who stopped breastfeeding at 6 weeks said they wanted to breastfeed for longer, as did 40% of mothers who breastfed for 6 months.

  5. 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), Little Angels, 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.

  6. 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. The Baby Feeding Law Group submitted the report which submitted the report Protecting breastfeeding - Protecting babies fed on formula to the consultation.

  7. Baby Feeding Law Group members are also members of the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition, which is calling for action in 7 areas to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.





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