Q. What about mothers who cannot or don't want to breastfeed? Don't you care about them and their infants?
A. (25 July 2005) Baby Milk Action is not anti-baby milk. Our work helps to protect all mothers and infants from irresponsible marketing.
The World Health Assembly is the world's highest health policy setting body, made up of the world's health ministries, and it adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981 to protect breastfeeding and to ensure that breastmilk substitutes are used safely if they are necessary.
The Code, and Resolutions adopted since, basically ban companies from promoting their products and limit them to providing scientific and factual information to health workers. It is for healthworkers to advise parents, not companies with a vested interest in increasing sales.
The Code and Resolutions do not ban formula from being sold, marketed or used.
Our campaign aims to ensure the Code and Resolutions are respected and implemented. For example, the Code and Resolutions include requirements for labelling, such as the warnings and information that must be included and that the language should be appropriate to the country where the product is sold. You will see from the codewatch section how we have been calling for companies to fulfill their responsibilities under the Code and Resolutions, with some success. For example, Nestle said it would ensure labels were translated into the appropriate language by March 2000 - 19 years after the Code said it should do this (see Campaign for Ethical Marketing February 2000. Without campaigning pressure and media exposes labels in the wrong language would still be as commonplace as they were a few years ago.
In the Tsunami disaster in 2004 we worked with humanitarian agencies to ensure that incorrectly labelled formula was not sent by well-meaning people in the UK and elsewhere. It is far better to source formula locally if it is necessary. Indeed, we ran a campaign a few years ago supporting the Sri Lankan govenment`s requirement that labels be in three languages - Nestle was challenging the need for this (click here for details). Today formula in Sri Lanka is labelled in three languages. Our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) have worked in emergency situations helping mothers with breastfeeding, including re-lactating, and ensuring infants who need to be artificially fed are fed safely.
As well as working on labelling, we work for the implementation of the Code and Resolutions in legislation. Over half the world's population is now protected and companies have been successfully prosecuted for aggressive marketing. In countries such as Brazil the decline in breastfeeding is now being reversed which is helping to reduce infant mortality and morbidity rates. Initiatives such as UNICEF's Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which provides breastfeeding support, are similarly helping to increase breastfeeding rates, reduce sickness and death and cut costs to the health service from treating the sickness.
Protecting a mother's right to receive independent information free from commercial pressure has involved opposing the lobbying of some of the most powerful companies on the planet. For further information see the report Using international tools to stop corporate malpractice - does it work?
Where there is not independently monitored and enforced legislation aggressive marketing remains systematic and institutionalised. You can see the way companies idealize their products, by suggesting, for example, that infants fed on them will be more intelligent, in the report Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2004. This report contains over 2,000 violations from the main baby food companies, including over 700 pictures of their own promotional materials.
Company promotion exploits the difficulties some mothers have with breastfeeding, presenting formula as the solution for 'lack of milk' or 'hungrier babies' when in reality very few mothers are physically unable to breastfeed, if they receive support when they experience problems. However, too often that support is lacking and the very real difficulties some mothers experience are not overcome. For example, if the infant is not correctly positioned, milk production is not stimulated, nipples can become cracked and mastitis can develop. Health workers need training and the patience to help, but themselves are the target of aggressive marketing by baby food companies.
This is what we are working for, but it is not the situation in many countries. During National Breastfeeding Awareness Week in the UK in 2004 the Department of Health published the results of its own survey with the title 'Myths that stop mothers giving their infants the best start in life' highlighting that 34% of mothers falsely believe that formula is the same or nearly the same as breastmilk. You have only to look at company materials and product labels to see how this and other 'myths' are propogated.
Companies should be abiding by the requirements of the International Code and Resolutions independently of government measures. They do not and monitoring conducted around the world shows Nestle to be responsible for more violations than any other company, which is why it is the target of the boycott.
Formula milk is an extremely profitable product and we have called for companies to stop profiteering (click here for details). Our partner organisation in Italy has reported successful action there in breaking a cartel which was keeping formula prices artificially high.
To help Baby Milk Action's work continue, please consider becoming a member or ordering merchandise from our on-line Virtual Shop.
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