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How the baby food industry is orchestrating the attack on Cracking the Code

Cracking the Code is a report published in January 1997 describing research commissioned by the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM), a group of 27 leading and distinguished church, development and academic organisations. The purpose of the research was to inform the debate over whether baby food companies are abiding by the World Health Organisation's International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The conclusion of the report states:

"The research proves that many companies are taking action which violates the Code, and in a systematic rather than one-off manner."

The industry's reaction to Cracking the Code was immediate and negative. Even before seeing a copy of the report the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers (IFM) said it was "biased in design and execution" and complained that it had not been made aware of the project until after monitoring had begun. This was refuted by IGBM, who circulated a letter sent to IFM inviting comments on the draft research protocol. IBFAN (the International Baby Food Action Network - to which Baby Milk Action belongs) was invited to comment at the same time. The research was then conducted independently of both industry and IBFAN.

The day the report was published, and before seeing a copy, a Nestlé representative said on the BBC world service that the company "was not prepared to accept reproaches from self-appointed groups."

Nestlé have since hired PR consultants Henderson Group One to counter the adverse publicity, rather than correcting the marketing policy and practice which gave rise to the criticism. A booklet entitled A Missed Opportunity has been circulated. Arguments used in A Missed Opportunity are so obviously flawed that it appears to have been withdrawn. For example, Nestlé claims that the research is invalid because resolutions of the World Health Assembly, the policy setting body of the World Health Organisation, have been referred to. The World Health Assembly consists of representatives of world governments who set policy through a process of consultation and democracy. The International Code itself was adopted by a resolution of the Assembly.

Nestlé also quotes two "independent experts": Mr. James Rothman and Professor Jean Rey. Mr. Rothman is a market researcher who is perhaps better qualified to comment on increasing coffee sales than clinical epidemiological research. He was employed by the Infant and Dietetic Food Association (IDFA), the UK industry body, to give his comments on Cracking the Code. He asserts that the evidence gathered demonstrates companies are "not systematically violating the Code." Those employed by the industry should not be referred to as "independent", however impressive their credentials.

Professor Jean Rey is an eminent French paediatrician and a member of the European Commission's Scientific Committee for Food, which provides advice on food safety. Nestlé's PR consultants, Henderson Group One, do not make it clear that Professor Rey was speaking in his personal capacity. It is also illuminating to note that a question has been tabled in the European Parliament following Nestlé's use of his name and position:

"Is the Commission aware that one prominent member of the Committee, who has for many years had close links with the baby food industry, has only so far declared publicly an interest in mineral water?"

Glenys Kinnock, MEP, 30 June 1997.

The December 1996 meeting of the Scientific Committee for Food discussed infant foods, but the minutes only list Professor Rey's interest in mineral water. His connections with the baby food industry are not recorded and it is not made clear that his connection with mineral water is through his work for Nestlé's Perrier Vittel Water Insititute.

Since at least 1987 he has been an editor of books in the Nestlé Nutrition Workshop Series. His latest book for Nestlé is to be published in December. Its title? Clinical Trials in Infant Nutrition: Methodology, Statistics and Ethical Issues (ISBN: 0-7817-1564-4). In addition, Professor Rey is an editor of Recent Advances in Infant Feeding 1990, published by Milupa, a German baby food company, now part of Nutricia.

Professor Rey has told Baby Milk Action that he has taken industry funding for his project work.

To call him an independent expert is inaccurate and his statement that Cracking the Code is "practically worthless" should be viewed in this light.

IGBM said, "The random sampling framework used to investigate the violations is a standard, epidemiologically sound technique used by governments, research organisations, WHO, UNICEF and others to assess the prevalence of health conditions internationally." Professor Andrew Tomkins of the Institute of Child Health, London (a member of IGBM) said in the British Medical Journal that the study gives "reliable, objective data on the scale of the problem." The research co-ordinator, Anna Taylor, has responded in more detail to the criticisms raised by Mr. Rothman and Professor Rey.

Only the baby food industry and those connected to it have suggested that the conclusions of Cracking the Code are not supported by the evidence gathered or that the methodology is critically flawed.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) commented: "It is both unfortunate and ill-advised that the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers saw fit to ignore the findings, and to reject the report....It is also noteworthy that the findings of IBFAN, in its regular monitoring activities, are clearly vindicated by this report....[UNICEF] proposes that IBFAN be given renewed encouragement to continue monitoring compliance with the International Code. UNICEF views this as an issue of great consequence...It speaks , quite simply, to child survival and development." UNICEF Geneva, 14th January 1997.

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