Yasmin Hosny looks at baby milk marketing in the UK
Yasmin is a Public Health Nutritionist and independent research consultant currently working in the area of infant and young child feeding.
“Despite the UK Government’s apparent commitment to the Code in the international arena, the UK is not exactly leading by example in having one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in Europe and a formula milk industry worth £329 million a year.(1) In 2006-7 our Government allocated £729,011 to promote breastfeeding.(10) In the same year for every £1 spent by the Government to promote breastfeeding, over £10 was spent by leading manufacturers to promote baby milk and foods.(11) It is no wonder the Government cannot compete with such commercial investment, and only exposes the vulnerability of breastmilk because it is not a commodity. It is perfect for purpose, free, and has no carbon footprint. More encouragingly, in 2008 the Government committed to investing £6 million to promote breastfeeding in those areas with the lowest rates or greatest capacity to improve.(12) However, with the Code in existence and countries such as Norway providing exemplary models, it begs the question - how did we get to this point, with marketing campaigns diminishing public health initiatives, and profits being put before health?
In terms of UK law, current legislation stems from an EU Directive and is not as strict as the Code. Critical loopholes are being fully exploited by manufacturers, enabling practices which would otherwise violate the Code. UK law was introduced in a manner which still legally permits promotion of infant formula via the advertisement of so-called ‘follow-on milks’ (created to evade the Code), and permits manufacturers to push other products and materials that share the same brand name and logo as their infant formula. The fundamental flaws of current legislation are evident by the UK’s poor breastfeeding rates, booming infant formula industry, and the fact that 60% of pregnant women and mothers claim to have seen or heard infant formula adverts.(13) Concerns of campaigners are confirmed by research which shows that advertising led to 36% believing that infant formula was as good, or better, than breast milk.(13) This is evidence of just how powerful the commercial sector is, and the important role legislation can play in equalising investment and enforcing the Code.
Since 1997 and convened by Baby Milk Action, health professional and mother-support organisations in the UK have worked together as the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG) to bring UK and European legislation into line with the Code. One of the most pressing issues for BFLG has been the recent publication of a draft report into the effectiveness of UK legislation. The report was carried out by the Government’s Independent Review Panel,(14) but is considered by BFLG to be an appalling whitewash and worrying marginalisation of the true public health issue at hand. The BFLG is therefore calling on the Minister for Public Health to demand the report address the critical issue of how marketing undermines breastfeeding or otherwise reject it as a waste of public money. Another recent concern has been the European Food Safety Authority’s approval of Mead Johnson’s health claim “DHA(15) contributes to the visual development of infants” to be put on their follow-on formulas. DHA is an omega 3 fatty acid. The BFLG has called on the European Commission to not permit the claim, highlighting conflicts of interest. The BFLG position is clear that such health and nutrition claims on foods for infants and young children will always be misleading and inappropriate; there is no ‘health advantage’ in using any product over breastfeeding, which cannot compete in the market in the same way.
The Code is designed to protect all children, whether breast or formula-fed, and is very clear that responsibility lies with NGOs, health professionals and governments to monitor compliance. Given the current review of UK legislation taking place, we are in an opportune moment for reform. Strengthening UK law to close the loopholes would ensure the letter and intent of the Code are upheld, and empower Trading Standards to enforce the law and hold manufacturers accountable for illegal marketing activities. When you consider that it has been estimated to cost parents £650 a year to feed a child with formula milk,(16) each formula-fed baby is a very lucrative business prospect. We therefore need to support the Government in protecting breastfeeding. Effective implementation, monitoring and enforcement of the Code will ultimately lead to effective protection for all children, and put health rightly before profits.”
For more information see Links.
Save the Children are currently campaigning on this issue too – to get involved visit www.savethechildren.org.uk/en/2576.htm or call 020 7012 6400.
1 Department of Health, Infant Feeding Survey 2005, preliminary results released in May 2006
2 Mintel Premier Summary Report, Mintel International Group Limited, November 2005
3 Save the Children UK, Media Briefing, 2007
4 Save the Children UK, Media Briefing, 2007
5 The money is being invested towards ensuring that all relevant hospital and community settings adopt the principles of the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative (www.babyfriendly.org.uk)
6 NCT/UNICEF Follow-on Milk Advertising Survey, research by MORI for UNICEF and the NCT, 2005
7 Independent Review of the Controls on Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula
8 Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid
9 Save the Children UK, ‘Code watch’ research, 2006, unpublished
10 Save the Children UK, Media Briefing, 2007
11 Save the Children UK, Media Briefing, 2007
12 The money is being invested towards ensuring that all relevant hospital and community settings adopt the principles of the UNICEF Baby Friendly Initiative (www.babyfriendly.org.uk)
13 NCT/UNICEF Follow-on Milk Advertising Survey, research by MORI for UNICEF and the NCT, 2005
14 Independent Review of the Controls on Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula
15 Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) is an omega-3 fatty acid
16 Save the Children UK, ‘Code watch’ research, 2006, unpublished.