Nestlé under scrutiny for its infant formula marketing approach

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

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©iStock

Related tags: Infant formula

Accusations levelled at Nestlé claim the Swiss corporate giants mislead consumers with nutritional claims about its infant formula products, flouting ethical marketing codes in the process.

In a report​ that looks into how Nestlé markets its infant milk formula across the world, investigations found ingredient and nutritional health claims appeared to follow marketing strategies instead of scientific evidence.

Changing Markets Foundation and Globalization Monitor—the report’s authors—poured scorn on the firm’s self-proclaimed commitment to science as they cited examples of nutritional research being used as a marketing tool rather than prioritising children’s health.

“While we have come to understand that companies manipulate consumers’ emotional responses to sell a variety of products, this behaviour is especially unethical when it comes to the health of vulnerable babies”​ said Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director for the Changing Markets Foundation.

“If the science is clear that an ingredient is safe and beneficial for babies then such ingredients should be in all products. If an ingredient is not healthy, such as sucrose, then it should be in no products. Anything other than this approach calls into serious question whether Nestlé is a company committed to science.”

Vanilla flavour inconsistencies

Discrepancies were found after Nestlé advises parents against giving sucrose to infants on product labels sold in Brazil and Hong Kong. However two Nestlé infant milks sold in South Africa were found to contain the ingredient.

Likewise, other infant milks sold in Hong Kong were marketed as healthier for not having ‘any added vanilla flavour or flavourings for baby’s good growth’.

However, this vanilla flavouring was present in several Nestlé products sold to consumers in Hong Kong, China and in South Africa.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) advise against the addition of sucrose in infant products stating that “it can lead to severe symptoms, including poor feeding, vomiting and overall failure to thrive in some infants”.

EFSA also advise against the addition of unnecessary substances, which “put a burden on the infant’s metabolism”​ because they have to be excreted.

A spokesperson for Nestlé acknowledged that the report raised important points adding that the firm "fully support the fact that malnutrition rates globally require all actors, including industry to do their part to ensure more people have access to better nutrition across the globe".

"We note that the report emphasises the important role of infant formula in providing adequate nutrition for children when breastfeeding is not possible. As a leader in the category we provide products that are safe and as nutritionally complete as possible, and ensure the composition is informed by the best available science. We will respond to the concerns and the recommendations of the report in the coming days.“

The report’s concerns also stretch to Nestlé’s use of words “closest to breastmilk”,​ in the marketing of their products.

The words are forbidden by the WHO marketing code and are advised against by EFSA as breastmilk contains a number of substances that cannot be mimicked in a manufactured product.

In addition, the report claimed the products said to be “close to breastmilk”​ had significant variation in their ingredients, with the report saying this was further evidence that this was a marketing claim.

‘Milking it’ campaign

In a further industry response, the Brussels-based International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI), challenged the findings of the latest report.

The organisation also pointed towards its earlier response to a similar campaign​ back in November last year where four leading manufacturers of milk formulas were accused of boosting profits by exploiting parents’ desire to give the best possible nutrition to their offspring.

“As a result of national and international legislation and standards, the infant formula sector is one of the most rigorously regulated food sectors in the world,”​ the statement read.

“Regulatory authorities enforce these legislative requirements in all markets the infant food industry is active in, with strict and continuous oversight of all production and marketing activities.

“When marketing follow-up formula and growing-up milk, our industry agrees that it needs to be ethical, unambiguous and done transparently. The marketing of formula should also contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants by ensuring the proper use of formula, when necessary, on the basis of providing appropriate education and adequate information.”

This latest report called for Nestlé to conduct an independent review of its global product range while also encouraging policy-makers to strengthen and align global standards.

They also asked for strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms to prevent inconsistent practices by all infant milk manufacturers.

Remarking on the report‘s findings, Nina Renshaw, secretary-general of the European Public Health Alliance said they “highlighted the vital importance of watertight legal frameworks to protect young children and their parents”.

“The impending EU-wide ban on nutrition and health claims on infant milks is a key step in that direction, but this shows that governments and the World Health Organisation will still need to keep a watchful eye on companies’ behaviour.

“Nothing should contribute to misleading people by idealising the use of infant milks, a key requirement of the WHO Code on marketing.”

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