Out Of The Fryingpan
new internationalist 110 April 1982
Sweetened Condensed Milk (SCM) is not a babymilk. Forty-five per cent of it is sugar. And its other nutrients are unsuitably balanced for babies. According to the UN Protein-Calorie Advisory Group, ‘under no circumstances should SCM be used for very young children’. The World Health Organisation declared it most undesirable for infant feeding’.
But Third World parents are beingduped into buying it for just that purpose. In their recent report. The Other Baby Killer, the Consumer Association of Penang tells how they discovered that SCM is being promoted in Malaysia and Hong Kong as ‘excellent for infant feeding’ or ‘recommended for baby feeding’. The containers often had feeding tables for babies from the first week of life to six months. Some time, containing the even less nutritional ‘palm oil condensed milk’, were labelled with pictures of chubby, smiling infants.
A radio advertisement sang to Malaysian mothers: ‘Grow tall little man, don’t fall little man... go get Milkmaid Milk.’ Its producer, Nestle, argues that their television SCM advertisements presented a schoolage child. But poorer sections of the populations, who were most likely to use SCM (usually cheaper than powdered babymilk), were least likely to have access to television: mostly they listen to radio.
After two years of hard campaigning in Malaysia, the feeding table and radio adverts were dropped but the labels still read ‘excellent for children’, ‘to help build strong healthy bodies’, and at least one retained a picture of a plump and happy baby.
Custard Powder in Nigeria
The Nigerian government has recently taken tough action against companies who were doing just this. Two firms were selling custard powder — that’s corn starch, flavouring and colouring — as baby foods.
One product was manufactured by a British Company, Bestoval. who exported it to New Century Foods, a Nigerian firm which claims to operate ‘in association’ with Bestoval. It was packaged and labelled in Lagos and widely sold and advertised throughout Nigeria as ‘Daily Baby Food Custard Powder’. Mothers, please note: ‘for strong growth of your baby insist on nothing but Daily Baby Food Custard Powder'.
The label and adverts show a baby and a feeding bottle. The message couldn’t be clearer. The reality is that ‘nothing but’ custard powder could kill a young baby in a matter of days. The baby would not receive the balance of proteins, fats, minerals and vitamins needed for proper growth in early months, and would simply starve to death. That’s if a fatal disease didn’t set in first since— weakened by hunger— the baby’s resistance would be minimal.
This scandalous trade came to the attention of Oxfam in May 1981; ironically, the same month that the World Health Assembly overwhelmingly adopted an International Code to outlaw misleading promotion by manufacturers of artificial babymilks. Oxfam’s first step was to ask the companies to alter their ways immediately. This brought a threat of legal action from the UK manufacturer followed. after further letters, by a disclaimer: ‘We only make the stuff. it's up to the Nigerian Company how they sell it’ The Nigerian Company never replied.
Eventually Oxfam petitioned the Nigerian government to take action. Within weeks the Federal Ministry of Health passed a law banning such products, instructed the country’s Food Inspectors to seize stocks from the shelves of shops and supermarkets and threatened the companies with legal action if they indulged in such dangerous and misleading marketing in the future.
What will never be known is how many babies’ lives would have been saved if the companies had taken action when the problem was first pointed out to them or, better, if they had behaved responsibly in the first place.
This article is from
the April 1982 issue
of New Internationalist.
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