As the industry tries to weaken and delay measures that are already weak and long overdue, everyone else from the government's own expert advisors to the Baby Feeding Law Group and the Breastfeeding Manifesto Coalition are calling for stronger measures.
A founder member of the BMC, David Kidney MP, called a Parliamentary debate on 16 January. You can find the full text in Hansard here (scroll down the page or search for 'infant formula'):
Here is an extract from Mr. Kidney's opening statement.
There are good public health reasons why the activities of companies marketing breast-milk substitutes should be controlled, including the safety and health of new-born babies. Powdered formula is not sterile, so care needs to be taken over preparation in order to avoid contamination. Furthermore, the activities of companies should be controlled so as not to undermine efforts to promote breastfeeding.
The international standard for such control is the World Health Organisation’s international code on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes. The WHO is an organisation of member states, 118 of which, including the United Kingdom, voted to adopt the code as long ago as 1981; the United States of America was the only nation to vote against it. Ever since, we have been signed up to the WHO code and I dare say that Ministers have visited other countries and recommended it to them. However, our domestic law has not yet implemented the code and even though an opportunity to implement it has now arisen, the Minister has not proposed that we should do so.
I shall use the debate, therefore, to make representations to the Minister. It is not too late for us to be bolder and to implement fully the WHO code. We have a law to control the marketing activities of companies that make and sell infant formula, but it is widely recognised that it is not sufficiently effective. The debate comes at a time when the Minister is seeking to tighten that law to make it more effective. At present, I do not think that her proposal for changing the law takes us as far as it should, particularly towards full implementation of the WHO code. My purpose in this short debate is to urge her to go further.
After setting out the need for stronger Regulations, with a supportive intervention from long-time campaign supporter Annette Brooke MP, Mr. Kidney praised some of the government's efforts to promote breastfeeding and asked the Minister for Public Health, Dawn Primarolo MP, to respond. She said in part:
My hon. Friend acknowledged that not all mothers choose to, or are able to, breastfeed, and that it is vital both that bottle-fed babies are protected and that mothers are in the best possible position to make informed decisions about feeding choices for their babies. The Government are developing an agenda on two fronts. Our central policy is to encourage, promote, protect and support breastfeeding mothers. We want to ensure that mothers who choose not to breastfeed or who cannot do so, receive the best advice so they can choose what is best for their babies without other people interfering in those decisions or causing confusion. For those reasons, we have placed stricter controls on the promotion, labelling and composition of infant and follow-on formula.
The main points made by my hon. Friend and the coalition concerned follow-on formula, and I concur entirely, because parents tell us that the available information is confusing. We recognise that advertisements for follow-on and infant formula may provide confusing advice about what is appropriate for infants and can be misinterpreted by parents. The hon. Member for Mid-Dorset and North Poole (Annette Brooke), who has been very active in this campaign, touched on that point. Let me make the position absolutely clear: the Government are determined to take tough action to stamp out those practices and to prevent marketing activity that directly or indirectly undermines breastfeeding. We are acting on evidence suggesting that consumers in the UK cannot clearly differentiate between infant and follow-on formula when purchasing those products.
As my hon. Friend pointed out, maternal and infant support groups have brought the issue to our attention. I have had many meetings with different organisations about press and TV adverts on follow-on formula which, they believe, undermine breastfeeding. In the guidance issued alongside the regulations, we have explicitly taken up every example that was put to us and said, “This is not acceptable, and action will be taken.” There have been complaints about the industry seeking to bypass restrictions on the direct advertising of infant formula by the way in which it labels infant and follow-on formula, and advertising follow-on formula in such a way that it is difficult to distinguish between the two. I absolutely agree. On that basis, following extensive consultation with stakeholders, I have agreed a package of measures that will strengthen controls in this area. The package is made up of effective, proportionate and evidence-based controls, and I am confident it will improve consumer protection and give us a robust system can withstand challenges, should they be made.
I gave a further commitment, after looking at everything that I received in representations about advertising, to provide guidance. That guidance is now operational, and it shows how the regulations should be interpreted. I have made a commitment, too, to provide an independently chaired review of the new controls after their first year of operation. As I made absolutely clear to the relevant organisations in our private meetings, the review will play an important role in policy making and in assessing whether the new controls worked as expected. It will assess whether people have found new ways of getting around the rules or whether they are simply not complying with the rules. If the new arrangements are found not to be working, because they have been circumvented or because new methods emerge, the Government will respond proportionately and take the next step of considering further legislative action. We have therefore put robust measures in place.
In taking legal action against the Regulations at the High Court, I suspect that the industry's concern is not so much the weak Regulations, but that they may be strengthened through this year-long review process.
The longer it can put off that and any strengthening of the law to bring it into line with international standards, the longer it can fill its coffers. It is noteworthy that spending on promotion has increased markedly in the current period as companies try to get away with as much as they can before action is taken.
The Minister's strategy is to take a whole longer demonstrating the effectiveness or otherwise of the revised Regulations to justify any strengthening as 'proportionate' through the review.
Mr. Kidney asked the Minister about the remit for the review and whether it will be broad enough. The Minister began her reply:
I can assure my hon. Friend that the review will be every bit as broad as I have suggested. I am sure that he will recognise, both from his parliamentary experience in Parliament and from the work that he did before he was elected, that Governments must always proceed in a proportionate way. Stepping outside that process can bring other complications that slow down progress.
Well, we certainly don't want progress in introducing the International Code, adopted 27 years ago in 1981, to slow down any further!
You can help by asking your Member of Parliament to sign Early Day Motion 608 calling for stronger measures. The government is under legal pressure from the industry. Let it know that it has support for taking required action to protect breastfeeding and to protect babies fed on formula.
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