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UN Committee on Child Rights urges UK to ban promotion of breastmilk substitutes

9 October 2002

Breastfeeding advocates in the UK, who have for decades been calling on the UK Government to ban advertising and promotion of breastmilk substitutes in line with UN international requirements, expressed delight at the Concluding Observations of the UN Committee on the Convention on the Rights of the Child which were published on 4 October 2002.

The UN Committee's report welcomed the reduction of infant mortality rates in the UK but commented on the relatively low rate of breastfeeding [Note 1]. It specifically recommended that:

"the State party takes all appropriate measures to...promote breastfeeding and adopt the International Code for Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes."

If the UK fails to act on the recommendations, when it appears before the Committee again in 5 years time, it will have to explain why.

Since 1990 when the Convention was adopted, all but two countries, USA and Somalia, have signed up to it. The Committee meets three times a year, reviewing the progress of nine countries at each session. Poland, Argentina and Burkina Faso were also urged to do more to promote breastfeeding. Poland was asked to encourage and educate mothers on the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for an infant's first six months and continued breastfeeding for two years, as recommended by WHO.

Since 1981, when the International Code was adopted, the UK has publicly endorsed it and all the subsequent relevant Resolutions passed at the World Health Assembly. But under pressure from the baby food industry, it has failed to implement them at home [Note 2]. Despite the advice of 48 major health and consumer bodies in the UK, the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations adopted in 1995 failed to ban advertising and instead has allowed the health care system to be used as a channel for millions of pounds of commercial promotion each year.

The Labour Party (then in opposition) also opposed the Law saying: "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." Despite growing evidence of the health and economic costs of artificial feeding, no action has been taken to change the Law and ban promotion [Note 3].

The International Code contains three fundamental principles:

  • Its resolutions are universal and apply to ALL countries.
  • It covers ALL breastmilk substitutes, not just infant formula
  • Companies must comply with the Code (and all its resolutions) in ALL countries, independently of government action.

It is also unequivocal in its ban of promotion, both within the healthcare system and outside it. Article 5 states: "There should be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public of products within the scope of this Code." While Article 6 states: "No facility of a health care system should be used for the purpose of promoting infant formula or other products within the scope of this Code." Because of the weaknesses in the UK Law, the baby food industry has been able to increase sales and the market is now estimated to be worth £370 million each year [Note 5].

The CRC Committee also commented on privatisation, calling on the UK to evaluate the impact of privatization of schools on the right of children to education. Baby Milk Action, (the UK member of the global network, the International Baby Food Action Network) along with trade unions and others, has been urging the UK Government to take steps to stop the commercialisation of education services, since this can have an enormous impact on children's understanding of what is and is not a healthy diet.

Patti Rundall, OBE, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action, says: "International instruments such as the Code and the Convention are critically important in the protection of health and sustainable development. This is particularly true with globalisation and the continued pressure to deregulate trade. We hope that at long last the UK Government will respect its obligations and do the right thing in the interests of British babies and their parents."

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For more information contact: Baby Milk Action, 23 St Andrew's St, Cambridge, CB2 3AX, 01223 464420,
Patti Rundall mob: 07786 523493


  1. While the UK breastfeeding rate at birth is 69%, at 1 week it drops sharply to 55%, at 2 weeks to 42%, at 4 months to 28%, at 6 weeks to 21%, at 8 months 16%, and at 9 months only 13%. (ONS 2000).
  2. The International Code was adopted in 1981 by the World Health Assembly - the world's highest policy setting body - as a 'minimum requirement' to be enacted 'in its entirety' in 'all countries.' 10 Resolutions have been passed since which all have the same status and which clarify and strengthen the original text.
  3. The UK Regulations stem from a 1991 European Directive (91/321 EC) which allows member states to implement the International Code and to ban advertising without breaching Article 30 of the Treaty of Rome. The preamble of the Directive states:"Whereas in an effort to provide better protection for the health of infants, the rules of composition, labelling and advertising laid down in this Directive should be in conformity with the principles and aims of the International Code."
  4. The cost savings of breastfeeding to the NHS were outlined in the 1995 DH, Breastfeeding: Good Practice Guidance to the NHS: "More mothers breastfeeding would bring health gains to mothers and babies and savings for the NHS in both the short and longer term….the saving associated with each one percentage point increase in breastfeeding in the average health district is about £4,000 - about a half a million pounds in England and Wales. If all babies were breastfed this would be equivalent to almost £300,000 a year for the average district or £35 million for the country as a whole."
  5. Two companies dominate the UK artificial babymilk market: the US company Wyeth (which owns the SMA brand with about 40% of the market) and the Dutch company Numico (which owns the Milupa and Cow & Gate brands with about 30% of the market). Other brands are owned by UK supermarkets, the US companies Heinz, Mead Johnson and Abbott Ross, and the German company Hipp. The Swiss food giant Nestlé, launched a milk in August 2002 which has already generated criticism from 11 health and consumer bodies.
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