Infant formula makers accused of milking parent’s feeding concerns

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

©iStock/Ritter75
©iStock/Ritter75
Four leading manufacturers of milk formulas have been accused of boosting profits by exploiting parents’ desire to give the best possible nutrition to their offspring.

In a report that looked at over 400 infant formulas made for babies under 12 months old, Nestlé, Danone, Mead Johnson Nutrition and Abbott, sold at 14 markets were singled out as differentiating products based on consumer preferences rather than science-based fact.

Further findings claimed manufacturers are needlessly adding nutrients to ‘premium’ products in an attempt to better mimic breastmilk or represent ‘the latest developments in nutritional science’.

“Product differentials are carefully and deliberately designed to appeal to the tastes and lifestyle preferences of parents, or their natural desire to give their babies the best possible start in life,”​ said Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director for the Changing Markets Foundation.

“As such, manufacturers can package these products in ‘premium’ ranges and charge high prices accordingly.”

‘Ethical, unambiguous and done transparently’

The investigation believed that companies, which sold different formulations on different markets to prevent allergies, promote softer stools and better sleep did so with little nutritional science for support and few beneficial health considerations behind the product ranges.

In an industry response, issued by Brussels-based International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI), the organisation said the sector “provides—based on the latest available science—high quality, safe and age appropriate nutrition for infants, and young children”.

“Putting a product on the market is affected by many factors, including R&D, which is at the core of infant and toddler nutritional products, ingredient quality, and production processes and packaging.

Likewise other environmental, regulatory or business considerations in each country will have an impact.

When marketing follow-up formula and growing-up milk, our industry agrees that it needs to be ethical, unambiguous and done transparently.”

Mead Johnson added that its products are based on rigorous medical and scientific research and are designed to deliver needed nutritional benefits, quality, safety and value to infants, children and families in support of their healthy development. 

“We deeply appreciate the trust we have earned from parents, caregivers and healthcare professionals through the years and around the world, resulting from our legacy of scientific rigor, quality, safety and caring,”​ the company added.

Infant formula is one of the most rigorously regulated food sectors in the world with specific legislation been set at national and/or international level (Codex Alimentarius).

The laws cover the age appropriate composition, production, labelling and marketing of foods for infants and young children guaranteeing safe and effective use of these products.

Asian markets

However, the investigation involving the Changing Markets Foundation, Globalization Monitor, SumOfUs and the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA), went further afield looking at the market for infant formula in China and Hong Kong.

Here, the country’s regulation for infant formula is still reeling from the 2008 milk scandal in which formula products became adulterated with the chemical melamine.

Several companies, including Nestlé, were implicated in the event, which resulted in nearly 300,000 people becoming ill and more than 50,000 infant hospitalisations and six infant deaths.

The pricing structure and variation was the focus this time around as the investigation found parents in China could spend as much as 40% of their average salary on infant formula.

In comparison, the most expensive formula in European countries would only cost 1-3% of an average salary.

Price range was also taken into consideration with European countries found to have smaller differences in price ranges.

In the UK, the most expensive product costs 1.6-times more than the cheapest product, while in Indonesia the difference is 4.5-times

Chinese parents willing to pay more

“Milk formula companies are exploiting the concerns of Chinese parents, who still remember very vividly the melamine contamination scandal and experience environmental pollution in the country, so are willing to pay more for premium products, as well as buy imported products,”​ said Rena Lau from Hong Kong-based Globalization Monitor.

“It is very concerning that premium products cost up to 2.5-times more and that they are not based on any scientifically proven beneficial value, but on parents’ willingness to pay. I would say it causes doubly unfair treatment to Chinese parents.”

The report’s authors argued for a complete overhaul of the global infant milk industry with the introduction of stricter regulation, so that only those products based on unequivocal scientific advice and with the highest quality of nutritional ingredients are sold.

They also called on governments to introduce and enforce national legislation that fully implements the WHO marketing Code and to ensure that the safety and nutritional quality and completeness of products is regularly verified.

‘Manufacturers taking advantage’

“This study proves that Nestlé and other leading baby formula manufacturers are taking advantage of families with infants wherever they can,”​ said Eoin Dubsky, SumOfUs campaigner.

“It’s time to reign in the marketers and ensure that sleep-deprived and financially-stretched parents who need infant formula can easily find products that are affordable, safe and nutritionally complete.”

Mardi Mountford, president of the Infant Nutrition Council gave a US perspective commenting that “Infant formula manufacturers take great pride in offering safe, innovative products based on current advancements in the scientific understanding of infant nutrition”.

“A variety of formulas, including specialty formulas for infants whose needs may not met by breast milk, are available to provide nutritious options, enabling healthcare professionals and parents to choose the most appropriate product for each infant.”

“Infant formula is the only safe, science-supported, nutritious, and recommended alternative for infants who are not exclusively fed breast milk.”

“Parents and healthcare professionals should have options to choose from when selecting the most appropriate formula to meet individual infant needs.”

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