Glenis Willmott MEP, the British Labour Party's leader in the European Parliament and the party's European spokesperson, waded into the highly contentious issue that is infant formula fortification and marketing, by calling for further revision of the EFSA-approved DHA (docosahexanenoic acid) claim.
Willmott, along with breastfeeding advocacy group, Baby Milk Action, does not dispute that DHA can benefit the visual developments of babies and infants par se. What they do question is the typically algae-sourced fatty acid’s benefit when delivered via bottle rather than breast.
"It is clear that there are concerns about the scientific evidence that would support a claim like this,” Willmott said. “We simply don't know enough about how DHA functions when delivered via the bottle.”
"If this particular fatty acid is really proven to be beneficial to babies' health when used in formula milk then we owe it to mothers and their children to ensure it is included in all products. If the link hasn't been proven, then companies shouldn't be allowed to make this claim."
The claim has not yet been written into the European Union legislature but passed a significant stage toward that goal in December when the European Commission Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health (SCFCAH) gave the claim the thumbs up – only European Council and European Parliament (EP) approval awaits, with any call for revision unlikely in the three-month window that expires on February 3.
The SCFCAH meeting was attended by EC and EP representatives, but Baby Milk Action called it a “meeting behind closed doors”, and Willmott promised to contest the decision in the Parliament where an absolute majority is required to send the claim back for revision.
The authorised claim (by 305 votes to seven with 33 abstentions) was submitted by Mead Johnson and ruled on by EFSA’s health claim panel in 2009. It stated: "DHA has a structural and functional role in the retina and DHA intake contributes to the visual development of infants up to 12 months of age."
Adults versus children
Willmott said there was in issue with the nutrition and health claims regulation because she believes its rulings tend to be adult-focused and perhaps not sensitive to the intricacies of formulating products for infants.
"The European Parliament delegated the power to make these decisions to a specialist committee, but most of the work done under the health claims legislation focuses on foods for adult consumption. Baby milk is a very special product and this decision has been taken without public scrutiny. I want to have a proper debate about whether this kind of claim is appropriate and I want to have that debate in public.”
She added: "This is separate from the whole ‘breast is best’ debate. I recognise that there are clear benefits to a child's development in breast feeding, but in this case I want to ensure that parents who choose to bottle feed can be confident that manufacturers have parents and their children's best interests at heart.
"I am sure that milk manufacturers will be gearing up for a big battle on this issue but our children's health is too important to be left in the hands of a multinational company's marketing department."