Second WHO report identifies formula firms’ social media use in targeting mums-to-be

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

Second WHO report identifies formula firms’ social media use in targeting mums-to-be

Related tags: WHO, Formula milk, Social media

A World Health Organization (WHO) report claims that pregnant women and mothers are being targeted online by formula milk companies with personalised social media content.

The report​outlines a number of digital marketing techniques designed to shape the choices new mothers and fathers make on how their babies are fed.

These techniques include using apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and competitions and advice forums or services.

According to the report formula milk companies can buy or collect personal information with the intention of sending personalised promotions to new pregnant women and mothers.

“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,”​ says Dr Francesco Branca, Director of the WHO Nutrition and Food Safety department.

“The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”

The latest report summarises findings that sampled and analysed 4m social media posts about infant feeding published between Jan and June 2021 using a social listening platform.

These posts reached 2.47bn people and generated more than 12m likes, shares or comments.

The report finds that formula milk firms post content on their social media accounts around 90 times per day, reaching 229 million users.

This represents three times as many people reached compared to informational posts about breastfeeding from non-commercial accounts.

According to the report’s authors, this form of marketing is increasing purchases of breast-milk substitutes and therefore dissuading mothers from breastfeeding exclusively as recommended by WHO.

Report series

The publication is the second in a series authored by the WHO that details exploitative marketing practices employed by the baby formula industry.

Earlier this year, a similarreport​ launched jointly with UNICEF, also ​detailed practices used by formula industry that it claimed compromises child nutrition and violates international commitments.

These included unregulated and invasive online targeting, sponsored advice networks and helplines; offered promotions and free gifts; and influencing health workers’ training and recommendations.

ISDI comments

Responding to these findings, the International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI), an association representing the maternal, infant and young child nutrition sector said back in February that its members were, “committed to improving nutrition and providing the highest quality products that help meet the nutritional needs of mothers, infants and children.”​ ​

“When breastfeeding is not ‎an option the only recognised and proven alternatives are scientifically developed and ‎clinically demonstrated breastmilk substitutes (BMS), which are manufactured in accordance with internationally recognised standards, (Codex Alimentarius) and local regulations.‎​

“The International Code of Marketing of ‎Breast-milk ‎Substitutes (WHO Code) covers any and all forms of marketing, including digital marketing,”​ the group added.

“ISDI members comply with all laws and ‎regulations in the ‎countries in which they operate and have extensive internal approval and audit ‎processes in place ‎‎to ensure their online and offline content meets all legal, regulatory ‎and nutritional ‎science ‎requirements.‎ ​

“In addition, manufacturers of infant and young child nutrition have their own internal and external mechanisms for policy compliance. ​

“Our members support ‎efforts by national governments to ensure compliance with ‎all national laws and regulations.”​

Sharing a common goal

The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), the representative of the specialist nutrition industry in the UK echoed similar comments adding, “manufacturers of infant and young child nutrition are working to actively raise ‎awareness of the WHO Code principles and applicable laws ‎through education and training, as well as monitoring independent websites to identify ‎regulatory and compliance issues.‎​

“BSNA members share a common goal with the WHO and national governments: that parents are supported with appropriate and up to date information to make informed decisions on caring for their babies.​

“We support their efforts to ensure that everyone in the digital landscape complies with national laws and regulations.”

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