As the World Health Organisation and UNICEF put the finishing touches to a new code of conduct aimed at stopping the promotion of breast-milk substitutes to mothers in developing countries, the US-based Infant Formula Coalition is reporting continued abuses by Nestles, Dumex, and American Home Products. At a unique meeting in WHO’s Geneva Headquarters last October, representatives of the baby-food companies agreed to stop all sales promotion of breast-milk substitutes. ‘This is a major and extraordinary step for an industry to take’ commented the President of the International Council of Infant Food Industries. The decision was the result of a seven year campaign, first launched by the New Internationalist in 1973, which has spawned hundreds of action groups, several court cases, 1500 newspaper editorials, a US Senate inquiry headed by Edward Kennedy, and an international boycott of Nestle products.
Tens of thousands of babies are thought to have died as a result of their mothers being persuaded to abandon breast feeding in favour of artificial milk-formulas which they can neither afford nor safely use. Poverty, illiteracy, and the lack of safe water or the means to sterilise feeding bottles have exposed infants to the inter-reacting dangers of malnutrition and disease. The threat to infant health is enormous. WHO Director General Dr. Halfdan Mahler states that ‘the campaign against bottle feeding advertisements is unbelievably more important than the campaign against smoking advertisements.’
Now, three months after the companies’ announcement that the would abide ‘not just by the letter of the law but also the spirit’, reports are coming in of continued sales drives in developing countries. Mother crafts ‘nurses’, wearing uniforms but without any medical training, are still being employed by Nestles to promote their products in South African clinics; tins of ‘Non’ infant formula which make no mention of the superiority of breast feeding are still on sale in Mexico; plastic bags advertising Lactogen are being distributed to shoppers in Zimbabwe; baby care booklets advertising bottle-feeds are being distributed by Nestle in Malaysia; and the Wyeth Company is still advertising its SMA and S26 formulas in ‘African Buyers Guide’ as being ‘Good for Babies, Good for Profits, Good for You’.
Testifying before a House Sub-committee in February on the impact of the WHO recommendations, Nestle attorney John Dolan announced ‘we’re not certain that any changes need to be made’. Wyeth representative John Stafford went further and announced that his company would not abide by a strict interpretation of the code and would continue to distribute baby booklets and free samples.
‘The hearings have been both illuminating and discouraging’ commented Leah Marguiles, one of the coordinators of the campaign against infant formula promotion, ‘Now the public knows where the companies stand’.