Thursday, 19 September 2013

Advertising infant formula - WHO cares?

Last month, online retailer Ocado distributed, in print and online, a magazine that carried a feature advertising first-stage infant formula. They've now (after an initial delay) amended the online version of the magazine, which you can see here. The article on p34 originally had an image of a box of six ready-to-feed SMA bottles in the 'S is for Sleep' section (see right) - in fact the whole section looked as though it spelt out S.M.A. The first problem? It's illegal in the UK to advertise first-stage infant formula: the relevant legislation is here.

So far, so simple. Ocado were pulled up on their mistake, and they responded with an apology:
The SMA First Infant Milk product was included in the feature by mistake. The mistake occurred purely through human error and we are satisfied this is an isolated incident. We are very sorry that this has happened and we have made some changes to the ocadolife production process to ensure this cannot happen again. We take compliance very seriously at Ocado and as a responsible retailer we have voluntarily approached the relevant authorities to discuss this matter with them. We can also confirm SMA did not provide any funding for the inclusion of their product in the feature and we also extend our apologies to them for our error.
An end to the matter? Not really. The whole incident brought some of the issues affecting infant feeding in the UK sharply into focus. So much is wrong with the picture. That this image of formula milk appeared in the 'sleep' section of the article reflects a common misconception that formula feeding aids infant sleep (when in fact it increases the risk of SIDS). That the image appeared at all demonstrates a worrying lack of awareness of the law among editors, copyeditors, proofreaders... And a storm of comments on Facebook (I saw them on the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers page, and on the Ocado page) demonstrated just how poorly the general public understand the law itself, and the reasons for it (which reminded me of the comments made about breastfeeding in swimming pools that I blogged about here.) A small selection:
I don't see what's wrong with this. Some people formula feed, so what!!!
In today's world of equality and freedom of choice its a disgrace that such a law even exists... it hits a bit of a raw nerve when I read so many people trying uphold a law that in my opinion should never have been passed.
...not allowing advertising of first milk is making some mothers' failure at breastfeeding even more apparent... don't we need to be looking at the nhs midwifery service and the support (or lack of) that new mothers receive rather than the advertising...?
If these infant formulas were actually bad for baby and caused harm... then they wouldn't be allowed to be produced never mind advertised.
Adverts are allowed for everything else under the sun claiming to be healthy such as high sugar cereals, breakfast bars and alcohol!!!... but adverts aren't allowed when it comes to offering choice or advice on formula milk!!!
So why is it illegal to advertise formula?
I just don't get why people are so up in arms about a very small picture in a publication.
The law exists because of pressure groups who don't feel that people should be allowed to make their own choices.
The problem with this law is that it prevents the balanced info that you claim you want parents to have. 
Let me make it clear. The law exists to protect mothers and young babies, whether breastfeeding or artificial feeding. We know (and by we, I mean that it is common knowledge) that breastfeeding is the normal way to feed human infants, and we know, thanks to an ever-expanding wealth of scientific research, that not doing so carries a host of increased health risks for both babies and their mothers. Yes, even in the UK. It seems logical then that the marketing of breastmilk substitutes for infants, which are artificially-fed babies' sole source of nutrition, should be subject to checks and controls.

It's also clear, from even the most cursory look at the advertising practices of the formula manufacturers, that they will go to great lengths to promote their products, often making pseudo-scientific claims that do not stand up to scrutiny (cases have been brought against them, and won), adding ingredients of unproven benefit and cynically targeting health care professionals when they are denied direct access to parents. Baby Milk Action, and the UK Baby Feeding Law Group, monitor the activities of the various formula companies: you can find a great deal of further reading on their websites (my most-read post ever is about this topic too, here.) It seems obvious that companies aiming to maximise their profits are not best placed to offer objective information about formula feeding.

The above has been known for some time, and is recognised worldwide. Hence WHO (the World Health Organisation) created the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, adopted in 1981, the aim of which is to:
...contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution.
Can anyone find anything there to disagree with? It sounds perfectly sensible. In 2003, WHO and UNICEF, as part of a global strategy for infant and young child feeding, called for governments to 'review progress in national implementation of the Code, and consider new legislation or additional measures as needed to protect families from adverse commercial influences.' Unfortunately, in the UK we have still only partially implemented the WHO Code, which, as Emma Pickett IBCLC, co-chair of the ABM, explains:
...could be argued to have done more harm than good. It has led directly to the 'invention' of follow-on formula, which is not subject to the same advertising controls as first-stage formula. In countries that have fully implemented the Code, there is no follow-on formula at all - if it really were a distinct and medically necessary product, as the manufacturers would have UK parents believe, surely it would be available worldwide? Here in the UK we have evidence from the Diet and Nutrition Survey that 32% of parents have given follow-on formula before six months: proof, if any more were needed, that advertising really works.
She also describes a situation that breastfeeding supporters everywhere will recognise:
You meet mothers every day who use formula alongside breastfeeding and end exclusive breastfeeding because the messages they receive from advertising are far more powerful than the information they are drily given about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding. The TV adverts stick in the mind long after someone mumbling something about gut flora and allergy prevention.
It's grimly ironic that those parents complaining about the law against advertising first-stage formula are the very same parents that are being ripped off, both financially and through misinformation, by the formula manufacturers. Rough calculations (companies won't reveal their figures) suggest that of an annual spend by parents of £436.54 on Aptamil powdered formula, for example, between £231 and £349 goes on marketing and profit. Still think the companies are acting in the best interests of consumers?

As for where parents should go for better information, UNICEF, First Steps Nutrition, Which? and others all have guides to artificial feeding for those who need them, freely available on the internet.

But there's even more to it than this. Want to see how deep the rabbit-hole goes? In this post on the Alpha Parent James Akre describes our culture of acceptance of formula feeding thus (my italics):
Given the mass of compelling scientific and epidemiological evidence about the harm caused by routine artificial feeding, it’s hardly farfetched to qualify as collective delusion the unquestioned faith that the general public and health professionals alike in many settings continue to place in infant formula...

...Infant formula will sustain life in a pinch, and thank goodness this is so. But as I describe elsewhere, from a nutritional and developmental standpoint, most people do not understand just how hugely inferior it is to breast milk...The idealized view of normalized infant formula feeding that manufacturers are so adept at portraying – and, regrettably, so many consumers, health professionals and politicians are inclined to accept – doesn’t allow for even a hint of this disenchanting reality.
Given all the evidence, why do you think we haven't fully implemented the Code in the UK? And why don't we make more use of the laws we have? Don't be fooled into thinking that the reasons have anything to do with any doubts about the benefits, in terms of public health, of doing so. It's an uncomfortable truth that we cannot rely on governments to act as they should, even in the face of overwhelming evidence and firm guidance from WHO (which has no power to compel countries to implement the Code). The pressure, on governments and other organisations, from vested interests within the baby food industry and elsewhere, is immense: the power of corporations, at the highest levels of politics and policy-making, cannot be dismissed as conspiracy theory. When so much profit is at stake, the interested parties will do all they can to exert an influence. This month a letter appeared in the Journal of the World Public Health Nutrition Association about conflicts of interest in the area of infant nutrition:
...concerned with the equally deep penetration of the transnationals and their associated or supportive organisations, into the scientific community, into nutrition policy-making at the highest level, and into public health programmes that affect the health and lives of hundreds of millions of people.
We see this largely as a consequence of the failure of elected governments to fulfil their first duty, which is to govern. We also feel that some policy-makers and many scientists, including those working at the highest level, underestimate or overlook the consequences of their own actions.
The influence of Big Food can be subtle, and may, in the opinion of reasonable people, be seen to affect the judgement of public policy agenda-setters who act in good faith and whose personal integrity is not at issue. We are not questioning the motives of any of the people mentioned in this letter. We are though, deeply concerned about the possible effects of their activities.
Our specific situation in the UK is part of a global issue that has far-reaching implications for mothers and babies. Just today Baby Milk Action posted this press release on their website about formula companies bribing hospitals in China - yes, those same formula companies that advertise and sell products in the UK.

I've covered a lot of ground: from a tiny image of first-stage formula in an Ocado magazine, to global politics, nutrition policy and economics, in one helter-skelter ride. And really, this is still only scratching the surface. I just hope I have gone some way towards showing how that one little article is part of a much bigger picture that should concern us all.


  1. With reference to the paragraph below the line "that breastfeeding supporters everywhere should recognise" shouldn't it read ..end up exclusively formula feeding???

    1. No: the sentence refers to women who "end breastfeeding", ie. stop breastfeeding. You've read this as "end up breastfeeding". :-)

    2. Fantastic article! I love the clear response given to the ignorant facebook posts. Thank you for publishing this article, it's important to have this info to memory when someone tries to breeze over the use of formula.

    3. Fantastic article! I love the clear response given to the ignorant facebook posts. Thank you for publishing this article, it's important to have this info to memory when someone tries to breeze over the use of formula.

    4. Hi Leanne. Thanks for your comment, glad you enjoyed the piece. I was trying to get the essential info into a relatively short piece, so glad you thought I managed it!

  2. Want to offer for you a user-friendly platform to businesses and individuals to Post Free Ads.
    Get free account via Facebook Login or Post Free Ads in one click.
    Get more with free advertising at