Global agencies demand stronger action against ‘harmful’ breast-milk substitute ads

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Agencies demand action against breast-milk substitute ads

Related tags: Unicef, WHO, breastmilk, Formula milk

Countries are failing to protect parents from the ‘harmful’ promotion of breast-milk substitutes, despite efforts by The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF, and the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN).

In a new report​, the agencies believe not enough is being done to prevent the ‘misleading’ information and ‘false claims,’ that typify aggressive marketing practices used to highlight breast-milk substitute safety.

The issue is made all the more urgent during the current pandemic, in which the report highlights the need for stronger legislation.

“The aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes, especially through health professionals that parents trust for nutrition and health advice, is a major barrier to improving newborn and child health worldwide,”​ says Dr Francesco Branca, director of WHO’s department of nutrition and food safety.

“Health care systems must act to boost parent’s confidence in breastfeeding without industry influence so that children don’t miss out on its lifesaving benefits.”

The report finds only 136 countries of the 194 identified have legislation in place limiting the promotion of formula feeding over breastfeeding.

Only 79 countries ban breast-milk substitute promotion in healthcare settings. In addition, only 51 countries have measures that prevent free or low-cost supplies given away in health care services.

A total of 19 countries currently ban scientific and health professional association meeting sponsorship by breast-milk substitute manufacturers that includes infant and follow-on formula.

Similar BMJ publication

The report comes after a similar publication​by paediatric experts appeared in the BMJ​ that called for health and nutrition claims used in infant and follow-on formula marketing to be banned as they may undermine efforts to support breastfeeding.

In response, Danone, makers of the popular Aptamil follow-on milk, said, “Our infant formulas are based on scientific research, and we stand behind the nutritional value of these products. ​

“We do believe breast milk is the best source of nutrition for babies, and we make this very clear on our website and all our communications,”​ ​the spokesperson adds.

“But there needs to be options for women who can’t or who choose not to breast feed, and are searching for safe, nutritious alternatives for their babies. ​

“The information we provide helps parents choose the formula that is right for their baby’s needs and we don’t agree that it’s misleading. ​

“Infant formula is highly regulated, and all our formulas and communications must meet strict legal standards to ensure they are safe and the information we provide is factual and accurate. Furthermore, we ensure all our products and claims meet strict European and local regulations.”

Guidance and support

The report also highlights the effect ‘inappropriate’ breast-milk substitutes marketing is having during the coronavirus pandemic accusing formula makers of undermine efforts to improve breastfeeding rates.

Its authors say health care services that support breastfeeding mothers are strained because of the crisis, worsened by physical distancing that makes community counselling and mother-to-mother support services difficult to carry out.

 “As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, health workers are being diverted to the response and health systems are overstretched,”​ says Dr Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s chief of nutrition.

“At such time, breastfeeding can protect the lives of millions of children, but new mothers cannot do it without the support of health providers.”

“We must, more than ever, step up efforts to ensure that every mother and family receive the guidance and support they need from a trained health care worker to breastfeed their children, right from birth, everywhere.”

The WHO and UNICEF are now urging governments to strengthen legislation on the Code during the pandemic, asking them and civil society organisations not to seek or accept donations of breast-milk substitutes in emergency situations.

“The fear of COVID-19 transmission is eclipsing the importance of breastfeeding – and in too many countries mothers and babies are being separated at birth – making breastfeeding and skin to skin contact difficult if not impossible,”​ says Patti Rundall, of IBFAN’s Global Council.

“All on the basis of no evidence. Meanwhile the baby food industry is exploiting fears of infection, promoting and distributing free formula and misleading advice – claiming that the donations are humanitarian and that they are trustworthy partners.”

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