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More action needed on baby food marketing

display of baby milk in a shop
Special displays are prohibited by World Health Assembly marketing requirements. Nestlé ordered this display to be removed in Malawi following a Baby Milk Action campaign in 2009 Baby Milk Action

I joined Baby Milk Action after returning from a four-year stint with Voluntary Service Overseas in Malawi, Africa, in the 1990s. One of my first campaigns against the irresponsible marketing of baby milks prompted Nestlé to translate the labels of products sold in Malawi into the national language, as the government had also been demanding. Ten years later, we persuaded Nestlé to put an end to point-of-sale displays of formula such as the one I encountered in a rural area on a return visit to Malawi in 2009.

However, marketing malpractice continues. As a new report from Save the Children, ‘Superfood for babies: How overcoming barriers to breastfeeding will save children’s lives’, documents, baby food companies continue to push their products in ways that endanger health. The report contains on-the-ground research; it is essential to look at what companies actually do, rather than just at what they say they do.

Nestlé claims to abide by World Health Assembly marketing requirements, but Save the Children found in Pakistan, for example, that 20 per cent of health professionals surveyed reported gifts from baby-food companies – over half were Nestlé-branded. Danone, now second in the baby-milk market, is also criticized. The company is an increasing cause for concern as it tries to compete with Nestlé.

Over a decade ago, in 1999, I was privileged to work with Syed Aamir Raza, a former Nestlé medical representative from Pakistan, after he blew the whistle on how he was trained to bribe doctors. He took a stand after a four-month-old child died at a hospital he was visiting and the doctor blamed people like him for pushing formula feeding. Breastfed children are less likely to suffer short- and long-term illness and, in poor conditions less likely to die than formula-fed babies. Limited regulations were introduced following our work with Aamir, but they have not gone far enough.

When regulations are effective, the industry tries to weaken them. In the Philippines right now campaigners are trying to stop the Nestlé Monster Bill from replacing strong regulations introduced in 2007. This is their name for a draft law that will remove hard-won protection against the promotion of foods for children up to three years of age. At present labels have clear warnings, meeting Save the Children’s recommendation that these cover a third of the packaging.

If Members of Congress succumb to a threat that corporations will cancel $400 million of investment if the law does not pass, the law will allow them to advertise milks for use from six months of age and target mothers directly as well as weakening the labeling requirements and other protection. The Department of Health has intervened, countering: ‘The draft House Bill... aims to support multinational companies while damaging the Filipino society: families, the mothers and children.’

formula advert
Clear warnings in the Philippines – Nestlé is fighting to weaken the regulations Baby Milk Action

Nestlé is the target of a boycott as it is the worst of the companies, in terms of scale and type of violations, and this pressure has forced some changes in policies and practices. For example, Nestlé stopped claiming its formula is ‘The new “Gold Standard” in infant nutrition’ as a direct response to our last email campaign. The company has dismissed the Save the Children report, however, stating: ‘It is unfortunate that specific companies are singled out for criticism, yet none are given credit where it is merited.’

So what credit is Nestlé due? In response to the last global monitoring report from the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), ‘Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2010’, Nestlé said it would act on just four of the 130 violations it counted in its profile. That’s only three per cent and includes the ‘Gold Standard’ claim that we had already forced it to stop. Nestlé does not deserve praise: it deserves to be boycotted.

Rather than accepting our four-point plan for saving infant lives and ultimately ending the boycott, Nestlé executives continue with business as usual while trying to counter the boycott and sometimes investing in dirty tricks. In January 2013 a Swiss court ordered Nestlé to pay damages and costs to members of campaign group ATTAC Switzerland after their spies infiltrated the group as it was producing a book on the baby-milk issue and other concerns about Nestlé practices. Last year, the company opened a special centre monitoring billions of postings on the internet.

As for Danone: they have said new policies would stop 50 per cent of the violations in the Breaking the Rules report, but it still rejects our call to stop them all. At present, we target Danone with exposés and shaming campaigns, but perhaps it is time to call a Danone boycott, too.

So we need the twin tracks of monitoring and public pressure on the one hand, and working for independently monitored and enforced regulations on the other.

To sign the Baby Milk Action petition of solidarity with the Philippines see the website.

You can also support Baby Milk Action in their work by becoming a member or visiting the Virtual Shop.

Slideshow photo: penelope waits, under a CC License.

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