The UK Food Standards Authority has written to baby food companies pointing out to them that the UK law prohibits all claims on infant formula labels except those listed in an annex to the law. Trading Standards Officers have been contacted with a reminder of what the 1995 law allows and does not allow.
Companies are now busily changing their labels and advertising campaigns to avoid prosecution and fines. The crackdown has been a long time coming. Why did it take 12 years for the authorities to take action? And what was the role of Baby Milk Action campaigns and your support? I will explain.
The message sent to Trading Standards Officers by their umbrella body LACORS (Local Authorities Coordinators of Regulatory Services) states in part:
Some examples of claims which are therefore non-compliant with Regulations 13 (3) of the UK Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 1995 are given below:
* Omega 3 LCPs for development
* Nucleotides help growth and the immune system
* Beta-carotene helps the immune system
* Prebiotics supporting baby’s natural defences
* Closer than ever to breastmilk
Home Authority and Enforcement Officers will wish to take this guidance into account when advising businesses.
This means the companies have to change their labels with immediate effect. Though existing labels are illegal, Trading Standards will allow them to work through the distribution system, which could see them on the shelves still for a year or more.
I have written in the past how health claims are a gold mine for companies and why regulation and independent information are essential for mothers to be able to make an informed decision. Nobody can make a mother feel guilty if she makes the best decision for herself and her child based on accurate and independent information - whatever her decision may be. If she was misled as to the claimed benefits of infant formula, then again she should not feel guilty, but angry at companies that broke the law and authorities who let them get away with it. See:
Here are a couple of examples of illegal labels that will now need to change.
We are delighted that we can now say the UK is an example to the world for taking action over health claims on infant formula labels and promotion. Of course, there is still much that needs to be done to bring UK regulations into line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. UK law is being reviewed this year and we will be working for the necessary changes.
But in the meantime we recognise and welcome the importance of the action taken by the authorities. A Department of Health survey published in 2005 found that 34% of women believed that infant formula is the same or almost the same as breastfeeding. So the removal of these claims is an important step to ensure they receive accurate and independent information. See Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life.
So why did it take 12 years for the authorities to take action in the UK? A good question. The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations were adopted in 1995. Baby Milk Action campaigned as they were being drafted for them to be brought into line with the Code and Resolutions and received the backing of all UK health worker organisations. The Labour Party was in opposition at that time, led by Tony Blair, and opposed the adoption of the law in its weak form.
We were particularly concerned that the law only restricts promotion of infant formula to the general public. There are no restrictions on the promotion of follow-on milks.
Regarding claims on labels and advertising, however, the law was clear. Regulation 13 (3) referred to in the new guidance note, states:
13. (3) The labelling of an infant formula shall include a claim concerning the composition of the product only when—
(a) the claim is listed in column 1 of Schedule 4, and is expressed in the terms there set out; and
(b) the condition specified in column 2 of that Schedule in relation to the relevant claim made in column 1 is satisfied.
This derives from an European Directive (91/321/EEC) which contains similar wording and annex of permitted claims. As the new guidance note to Trading Standards Officer explains “The claims listed in Annex IV relate to: adapted protein; low sodium; sucrose free; lactose only; iron enriched and reduction of risk to allergy to milk proteins which may include terms referring to reduced allergen or reduced antigen properties.”
You’ll note in 13 (3) it states that claims can ONLY be included when the claim is listed in the schedule, and is expressed in the terms set out.
So as we say in colloquial English it should have been bleeding obvious that any other claims were illegal. However, companies argued the law was unclear and, perhaps fearing an expensive legal battle through the courts, Trading Standards Officers did not take action as an increasing number of claims were rolled out in re-launch after re-launch of formula labels.
The restrictions on claims in the labelling is specifically referenced by the article on advertising, which states:
Restrictions on advertising of infant formulae
17.—(1) No person shall publish or display any advertisement for an infant formula—
(b) which does not comply with the requirements, prohibitions and restrictions relating to labelling contained in regulations 13(1)(h), (2) and (3) and 15.
There it is, very clear in black and white, advertising – which could only be directed to health workers or through the health care system – has to comply with 13 (3).
The law was adopted in 1995. As we always say, laws in themselves are not enough because the baby food industry will push to the limit of what they are permitted to do and beyond. Laws need to be monitored and enforced. Although it should not have been necessary it has taken 12 years of monitoring and campaigning to prompt this enforcement action.
Here are some highlights of the efforts made by Baby Milk Action and partners and landmarks along the way. This is not definitive, just a few of the things that immediately come to my mind.
1995: Law adopted despite widespread opposition from health associations, mother support groups and the Labour Party, led by Tony Blair.
1997: Baby Milk Action convenes the Baby Feeding Law Group to campaign for the law to be brought into line with the Code and Resolutions. Tony Blair becomes Prime Minister.
1997 onwards: Briefing papers produced on shortcomings of the law and need for improved enforcement. Meetings with officials and media work takes place.
2002: Following submissions by Baby Milk Action, the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child calls on the UK Government to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.
2003: Baby Feeding Law Group website launched. Monitoring forms enable members of the public to report violations to BFLG (for processing by Baby Milk Action) and enforcement authorities. Wyeth SMA is successfully prosecuted by Birmingham Trading Standards for a ‘cynical and deliberate breach’ of the ban on infant formula advertising. Baby Milk Action materials are cited in the court case and we bring news of the prosecution to the wider world.
2004: A grant from the King’s Fund enables Baby Milk Action to run a training day with UNICEF’s Legal Officer for policy makers and partners and to train a team of monitors. Baby Milk Action works with partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) to launch a global monitoring report at the UK House of Commons during National Breastfeeding Awareness Week (May) with a UK specific briefing paper Look What They’re Doing in the UK. An Early Day Motion tabled by Lynne Jones MP gains cross-party support calling for action at UK and international level. In October, the Government launches its public health white paper Choosing Health, promising action to strengthen UK law and the European Union Directive from which it derives.
2005: The European Commission consults on re-drafting the EU Directive. The BFLG monitoring results and briefings encourage the UK Government to take a strong line in calling for the Directive to be brought closer into line with World Health Assembly measures, for example including a ban on promotion of all breastmilk substitutes, not just infant formula.
2006: Monitoring results are presented at a meeting at the House of Commons during National Breastfeeding Awareness Week and another Early Day Motion from Lynne Jones MP gains cross-party support calling for action at UK and international level in what is the 25th anniversary of the adoption of the Code. The Directive is finalised, but few of the UK Government’s demands have been included. However, there is scope to strengthen UK law further and prohibit the promotion of all breastmilk substitutes. Baby Milk Action proposes a meeting with enforcement authorities as revising the law will take at least a year, during which currently illegal practices will continue and presents evidence of aggressive marketing, including illegal infant formula promotions in supermarkets and use of health claims.
2007: Revised guidance is issued to Trading Standards Officers and baby food companies and supermarkets contacted by the authorities. In statements to the media, baby food companies indicate they will change their infant formula labels. It is unlikely there will be any change to follow-on formula labels or advertising that is not explicitly for infant formula until the law changes.
We will continue to monitor the companies with the help of supporters. The picture below from Tesco shows that in March 2007 it was still running illegal promotions on infant formula, in these case offering double clubcard points for Hipp Organic infant formula (which has a cartoon on the label in breach of the Code and Resolutions).
The question now is, will Trading Standards take the next step and prosecute supermarkets for recurring illegal promotion? And does the government have the political will to stand up to baby food industry pressure and bring the UK law into line with the Code and Resolutions?
Baby Milk Action will certainly continue working with our partners for the protection infants and mothers deserve.
If you are pleased that idealising claims will no longer be allowed on infant formula labels and advertising, then join us in celebrating by becoming a member of Baby Milk Action, sending a donation or buying something from our on-line Virtual Shop.
It might seem so simple when authorities send letters to companies or the required words are written into the law, but it is not simple. It takes years of campaigning effort in the face of lobbying from some of the world’s most powerful corporations. Without your support we won't be here.