Wednesday, November 21, 2007

On dark arts and spinning

Today was a sad day. Stories of political dark arts and media spinning are true it seems. How disappointing.

Here is what happened.

At 10:30 I was part of a delegation meeting the UK Minister for Public Health to discuss the forthcoming Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations, put out for consultation earlier this year. Last week we asked supporters to send a final message to the Minister to support the call for the regulations to be brought into line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions. This is the position of the health worker bodies, mother support groups and other organisations belonging to the Baby Feeding Law Group and Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition.

The Government's own Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and LACORS (the coordinating body for Trading Standards officers, responsible for enforcing the regulations) were calling for many of the same specific things, such as an outright ban on the advertising of follow-on formula.

The invitation to brief the Minister directly today was a great opportunity and suggested seriousness on the part of government to engage.

Yet at 9:30 the Minister was at a press conference telling the media the regulations had been finalised. A press release was issued at 10:00 hailing them as "stricter controls on the promotion, labelling and composition of infant and follow-on formula". See:

So as journalists were filing their stories we were out of contact in the meeting with the Minister learning for the first time that there was no opportunity to influence the regulations further (well, we can take action such as a judicial review, but that is a consideration for another day). It emerged we were there simply to be briefed on a new consultation on the guidelines to accompany the regulations.

And it seems that we were only supposed to learn of the press conference by reading of the launch in the media after the meeting.

Coupled with the public announcement, the Food Standards Agency (FSA) has today published its response to the consultation submissions. If you are one of the organisations or thousand plus people who responded to the consultation you will find the response here:

The finalised regulations themselves do not appear, but it is clear from the responses that little if anything has been changed as a result of the consultation. Our press release concerning this disappointing news can be found at:

The government press release does promise: "Robust guidance for industry and enforcement authorities to correctly apply the new law".

We are now asked to believe that we have an opportunity to influence the guidance in the consultation opened today. See:

Indeed, it has been suggested the guidance goes some way to bring the UK closer to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The FSA consultation response states: "The Agency considers that the Directive [from which the regulations derive] should be interpreted in the light of the Code. The guidance seeks to do this."

In the Baby Feeding Law Group submission report Protecting breastfeeding - Protecting babies fed on formula we argued guidance notes are not the best approach as they do not have the same status as regulations and from our experience of the current situation, Trading Standards officers look to the regulations and interpret them while sometimes being unaware of the guidance notes.

Allowing follow-on formula advertising to continue, along with company carelines and websites (which are not permitted by the World Health Assembly marketing requirements), means parents will continue to be bombarded with misleading, inaccurate and sometimes dangerous messages. I wrote here yesterday how company carelines directly contradict government advice on reducing the risk of possible contamination of powdered formula. Surely it is better to direct parents to accurate, independent sources of information than expect companies to change voluntarily (when they have failed to do so already) or expecting poorly resourced organisations such as ours and Trading Standards to police these well-resourced company marketing channels. See:

All the same, we will prepare a full analysis and response on the draft guidance notes in due course to try to make these as strong as possible. If the government has taken on board some of our concerns in the guidance notes we will give acknowledge this.

That is for the future. Today I am disappointed that the previous consultation did not result in changes to the regulations.

More than this I am shocked and disappointed at the attempt to put the government line into the media without forewarning us this would be done today, leaving us to learn of it through the media. I can't speak for others at the meeting, but this does not seem to be the way to build trust with stakeholders.

The only reason I am not more annoyed is because we did manage to get the Baby Feeding Law Group position into the media reports despite the government's best efforts to have a clear run at spinning the regulations. For example, this is in the Daily Mail piece: Baby follow-on milk adverts tightened but not banned

Baby Milk Action, which represents the Baby Feeding Law Group coalition of 22 organisations, had called for a total ban on all baby milk formula advertising and online promotions.

It also called for infant formula company representatives to be banned from having contact with mothers via their telephone carelines or other channels.

The campaign group wanted a ban on promotional claims and images on infant milk formula product labelling and improved warnings and instructions.

Perhaps we are not as naive as some may think.


Anonymous said...

How devious - as if they didn't know what they were doing, keeping you out of the way like that. It's very magnanamous (and typical) of you, Mike, not to be more outraged - but, sadly, I can't be that generous. They are a bunch of backscratching, greedy lowlife's - just like the sucesion of lowlife's before them. And, just like them, we campaigners are being far too generous with the lives and health of the infants/mothers who suffer because of it - unless we become far more vocal/outraged in the near future.

Barbara said...

From a brief look at the reports in the papers, it looks like most of them didn't even appreciate the current restrictions on the advertising of infant formula.
The FSA report says 'The new controls will ensure that all types of formula will meet the nutritional needs of babies and the marketing and promotion of such products won’t undermine breastfeeding.' An empty promise without agreeing to the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions.
Who decides the interpretation of 'nutritional needs'? Does this mean that there will be quality regulations to govern what ingredients go into a tin of formula? I doubt it. A child who lives on chips and chocolate bars does well enough until he dies an early death from heart disease.
The 'trend' towards more breastfeeding ignores the fact that the British are bottom of the league in Europe in numbers of mothers breastfeeding.
The government's complete disregard of the stakeholders as well as its own Scientific Advisory Commitee on Nutrition and LACORS illustrates just how important babies' health is when it gets in the way of free trade. I feel utterly sickened.

Anonymous said...

I am really disappointed to read this...

I look forward to hearing what we can do on this next stage of consultations. The guidance notes look a bit daunting. I hope there are some opportunities for us to strenghten them.

Keep up the good work!

Rob Ager