UK law seeks to close infant & follow-on formula ‘loopholes’

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

'The present means of regulating products intended for babies and children has loopholes and is not enforced in any meaningful way,' UK member of parliament Alison Thewliss told her peers.
'The present means of regulating products intended for babies and children has loopholes and is not enforced in any meaningful way,' UK member of parliament Alison Thewliss told her peers.

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A UK bill seeking to close infant and follow-on formula regulation ‘loopholes’ has been unanimously endorsed by Parliament’s House of Commons.

The bill was voted in this week following a speech from Scottish member of parliament (MP) Alison Thewliss, who said current regulation of the market contained “loopholes” ​and was not enforced in “any meaningful way”. 

The text of the bill will now be drafted with the help of Parliament’s legal experts before proceeding to a second reading and potential debate on 24th​ February 2017.

‘Significant loopholes’

The infant formula industry has stated EU infant feeding regulation is strict enough but Thewliss accused the industry of using cross-branding of infant formula (0-6 months) and follow-on formula (over 6 months) products to sidestep restrictions.

“Under the present regulations, advertising of formula intended for babies under six months is not permitted, so formula manufacturers have focused their efforts on promoting follow-on milks,” ​Thewliss told parliament.

“Looking at these products on a supermarket shelf, it is clear that they are branded in a similar way, so that parents get the impression that a child will progress from one to the next. They are numbered from one through to three or four. The branding is very distinct and attractive; golden, with shields, crowns and cute animals. This is a growing market, and competition is fierce.” 

She also said there was another  “significant loophole” ​in the regulations in that all infant formula can be advertised in scientific publications not intended for the general public, which includes adverts in medical and health professional journals.

She cited a review published by charity First Steps Nutrition Trust ​this year, which looked at the adverts health professionals are exposed to. 

“Many of the headline health claims being made can’t be substantiated, the sources they cite are not in line with health policy, graphs set out to mislead, and these adverts may also fail to meet the Government’s own requirement for claims to be supported by peer-reviewed work,” ​Thewliss said.   

She said families should be able to trust the advice they are give by health workers as impartial and accurate. 

‘Wave of activity and emotion’ 

Scrutiny of formula marketing around the world is growing.

Last month Romania drafted its own national law​,​ which seeks to ban the marketing of formula products for children up to the age of two.

Long-time critic of the formula industry Baby Milk Action is hoping the impending Brexit may provide the UK with greater freedom to enforce tougher rules without complaints of causing a barrier to trade in the EU bloc.

Trade group British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) acknowledged increased pressure to renovate formula marketing rules.

“We appear to have a wave of activity and emotion at present,”​ said Declan O'Brien, director general of the trade group which represents the likes of Danone, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Nestlé.

“We will prepare for what may happen in February but hopefully the status quo will remain.”

BSNA says as an industry it recognises ‘breast is best’, but for mothers who choose to use formula, it is committed to providing the safest and highest quality alternative to breastmilk. 

Misleading, misspending 

Yet Thewliss, who serves as Scottish National Party (SNP) MP for Glasgow Central, accused the formula industry of misleading families with the marketing of expensive, sugary and ultimately unnecessary follow-on and toddler milks.

Market research firm Mintel estimates sales of baby milk in the UK increased by £37m (€43.28m) between 2014/2015 and 2015/2016. 

"The majority of growth is coming from follow-on and toddler milks – but the truth is these particular products are not necessary. They have emerged due to the tightening of regulations around formula intended for babies aged zero to six months.

"They are being marketed on TV, print and online as being important for child development, but many agencies globally are concerned about the high sugar content of these products and young children would actually receive all of the nutrients they need from a healthy balanced diet."​ 

She told the Westminster House of Commons: “I am concerned that parents are not hearing that message and that there is an impact on family budgets as a result. Infant formula milks are not cheap; the size of the containers is getting smaller while the cost is increasing.”​ 

She estimated that a tin of infant formula can cost between £8.50 (€9.94) and £14 (€16.37).

"Certain heavily advertised niche brands can cost nearly £23 for 900 g. For a baby in the first six months, these tins of formula might last around a week."

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