The baby food scandal took an interesting new turn at a recent World Health Organisation (WHO) meeting in Geneva. Infant food industry representatives agreed to recommendations that there should be ‘no sales promotion, including promotional advertising, to the public of products to be used as breast milk substitutes or bottle fed supplements and feeding bottles’.
At face value it looks as though the promotion of the foods that have caused so much damage to children in developing countries is to stop. But critics point out that the recommendation is open to wide interpretation (what is ‘sales promotion’ and what is ,educational advertising’?) and say that after a minor victory the battle will continue.
After fierce criticisms, first made public in the New Internationalist back in 1973, and followed by a major report by the UK agency War on Want, the companies had formed for themselves a defensive organisation: the International Council of Infant Food Industries. And in 1975 it drew up its own code of ethics. But that code stopped neither the abuses nor the protests against them.
A libel action by Nestle against a Swiss action group, a boycott against Nestle organised by the US Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT) and numerous stockholder resolutions by US Church groups from 1977-79 resulted in what one industry observer called a ‘public relations nightmare’.
In October 1979, War on Want produced a new report ‘The Baby Killer Scandal’ which catalogued continuing abuse and contravention of even the industry’s own code. The crucial WHO meeting then brought together the critics, the industry and the medical profession and produced a list of recommendations to which all agreed but of which there appear to be differing interpretations.
Companies do not say that they will stop the kind of ‘educational’ activity which puts them in the position of advisors to mothers and thus gives authority to the products. Nor are they to stop providing ‘ethical information’ to the medical profession.
Breast milk is vastly superior to, and much safer than, bottle feeds - particularly where mothers do not have clean water to mix the feed with, sterile feeding bottles to put it in, or enough money to buy the right quantities of milk-powder. But the industry is still keen to push its products, claiming that factors like contaminated water are outside its control. The opposition, which now includes the newly formed UK Baby Milk Action Coalition (see p. 29), regard this attitude as irresponsible.
WHO and UNICEF are currently drawing up a code of practice for the sale of dried infant formula. But critics will not be satisfied with anything less than the most severe restrictions. In Guinea-Bissau, for example, feeding bottles and dried milk are available on prescription only. Despite international condemnation, the companies are anxious to avoid such constraints elsewhere.