Thursday, September 13, 2007

Boots regrets the law - and shows why we need to strengthen it

People contacted us last month through the Baby Feeding Law Group monitoring project about strange shelf talkers on display in Boots in the UK. Forgive me for having a rather UK focus on this blog in recent posts, but this is a critically important time for strengthening our legislation. See:

Boots was running a promotion on baby foods. Quite rightly the promotional information on this pointed out that infant formula was not included in the promotion. This is because the UK law prohibits point-of-sale promotion of infant formula. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which Boots should abide by independently of government measures, prohibits promotion of all breastmilk substitutes, feeding bottles and teats, but Boots does not care about this and breaches the wider provisions with impunity because they are not covered by our narrow law. Even so, Boots has repeatedly over-stepped the line and broken the narrow law, without once being prosecuted. See examples at:

The promotion in August did exclude infant formula. As well as pointing this out on promotional information, there were rather curious shelf talkers with the infant formula, like this:

Click on it for a larger version. It states:

"We're really sorry the Infant Formula and Follow-on Milk Regulations do not allow us to offer you price reductions or promotional offers on infant formula. Baby milks up to 6 months."

This struck me and others as a little odd. It is one thing to highlight exclusions from a promotion, another to regret the constraints of a law intended to protect infant health.

I should point out here that we are not against permanent price cuts for infant formula. In fact we campaign for companies to reduce their profit margins on formula. The mark up on formula is greater than most other products on the shelves. It is a real money spinner. We think companies should stop profiteering from mothers who use formula and cut their prices - not as a promotional strategy to gain more customers, but as a permanent change. In Italy in 2005 a successful action was brought by competition authorities against the companies for effectively forming a cartel to keep the price of their formula high, upto 3 times the price in some other European countries. The companies fined over 9 million Euros were: Heinz, Plada, Nestlé, Nutricia, Milupa, Humana and Milte (details in this report from law firm DLA piper avaialable as a pdf).

Okay, back to Boots. I wrote to the company about this shelf talker:

---letter extracts

I find it curious that you feel the need to go beyond informing shoppers that infant formula is not included in the promotion on baby goods by making a prominent attack on a law which is intended to protect infant health. May I ask why you are ‘really sorry’ at the provisions of these regulations and why you wish to highlight your sadness to shoppers? It seems to me unprecedented that Boots should advertise its dislike for regulations in this way and you may wish to reconsider your wording.

---extract ends

Boots responded in part:

---Extract from Boots' response begins

The signs were displayed to explain to our customers' that we could not offer them any promotional offers on these products. I'm sorry that you are unhappy that we used the words 'we are really sorry..., but they are words that are commonly used in store marketing messages where we are not able to meet our customers' expectations. At no time were they ever intended to 'make a prominent attack on a law which is intended to protect infant health'. The sign was merely meant to be a warm and friendly message informing customers that we are not able to deliver what they wanted.

---extract ends

So Boots suggests the law denies customers what they wanted. I dispute this. Many customers, I am sure, want to see Boots respect the International Code and Resolutions. Otherwise why would they complain to us about violations?

I believe that parents that use formula would rather have an end to profiteering than promotions. As well as accurate information on how to reduce the risks of formula. Boots, however, sells formula with labels that contradict the guidance for parents on mixing up formula from the Food Standards Agency and the World Health Organisation. I raised this in my letter:

---Extract begins

Boots shows continued contempt for the International Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. Your contempt for the Code and Resolutions has helped lead to the low breastfeeding rates in the UK and the lack of objective information for parents who use formula. As you are no doubt aware, you are currently selling powdered infant formula that directly contradicts government and World Health Organisation guidelines for parents that formula should be reconstituted with water of at least 70 Deg. C. This endangers babies, abuses the rights of parents who use formula and is irresponsible. I suggest it is more appropriate that you should be ‘really sorry’ for these actions and correct them.

---extract ends

Boots responded as follows:

---Extract from Boots' letter

With regard to the other comments in the last paragraph of your letter, the products that Boots sells are products which comply with the requirements and provisions of the current infant formula law and if you have issues with respect to those requirements, we would respectfully suggest that you take that up with both the manufacturers and the legislators responsible for the law in Europe.

---extract ends

This is untrue. Boots has been selling and continues to sell formula that the authorities say is non-compliant with the UK Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 1995.

We do indeed raise these issues with manufacturers and legislators and, as a result, the Food Standards Agency wrote to companies telling them to remove non-compliant claims from their labels. Boots continues to sell non-compliant products as they work through the system. See:

Regarding the instructions on preparation, the Food Standards Agency issued its guidance for parents in November 2005 following concerns over the deaths of infants in Belgium and France due to intrinsic contamination of powdered infant formula. Parents have a right to know that powdered infant formula is not sterile and the simple steps to be followed to reduce the risks. All companies have issue new labels since then, but do not give the clear information and warnings. One company, Hipp, directly contradicts the FSA guidance. See:

The important lesson from Boots response is that it requires legislation to hold manufacturers and retailers to account. Boots is happy to push things to the limit of the law - and sometimes beyond, as our monitoring evidence shows - regardless of its responsibilities to abide by the Code and Resolutions independently of government measures.

So please do help the campaign to protect breastfeeding and make formula feeding safer. The consultation being run by the government ends this month. See:

With your help we can strengthen the law, even if it will make Boots 'really sorry'.

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