Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Conservative Party call to annul Regulations could criminalise UK formula companies

It is surely not their intention but a call by the opposition Conservative Party in the UK House of Lords yesterday for the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007 to be annuled would have immediately criminalised the baby food companies in the UK had it succeeded. The leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron MP, has personally backed a move to strike down the Regulations. As it portrays itself as the party of business, criminalising an industry sector is perhaps not the best way to win friends.

If the 2007 Regulations fall, the 1995 Regulations remain in force. Under the 1995 Regulations, Trading Standards officers could prosecute companies for selling products with claims on labels that are not on a permitted list. We have been calling for this to happen for some time and arguing that as the current labels on the market were produced AFTER the companies were reminded of the provisions of the 1995 Regulations companies deserve no leeway and the products should be re-called and re-labelled. See what needs to change here:

This Heinz/Farley's label shows the possible consequencies of the Conservative call (though I imagine these are unintended consequencies).

The label contains the phrase 'with omega-3 lcps'. This is not permitted by the 1995 Regulations, but Heinz introduced it last year with the agreement of the Food Standards Agency as it was to be included on the permitted list of the 2007 Regulations. So if the 2007 Regulations stand, Heinz is in the clear, at least with regard to this claim (there are other things wrong with the labels). If they are annuled or delayed, Heinz could find itself in front of a judge and facing a criminal conviction.

The companies are in a decidedly sticky situation in any case because they themselves have had the 2007 Regulations suspended in England and Northern Ireland by taking the government to court. In Scotland the courts decided against suspending the Regulations while hearing the case.

The Infant and Dietetic Food Association (IDFA), the trade association which is fighting the law, is claiming it has taken the action to "protect the continued supply of baby milk formula". See:

Its logic is that it needs time to comply with the 2007 Regulations and, it argues, it could, in theory, be required to recall labels that are non compliant until the new labels are ready. It argues it didn't have time to prepare, though the Food Standards Agency told the media it had been discussing the changes with the industry for three years. A recall under the 2007 Regulations is perhaps an unlikely scenario as the enforcement authorities have shown they do not rush such action. We have been waiting for 12 years for action under the 1995 Regulations!

We believe the industry's real concern is that the government has promised to review the 2007 Regulations during the first 12 months of operation and to strengthen them if they are not effective. In the debate in the House of Lords, Labour and Liberal Democrat peers spoke in favour of this approach, while also voicing their concern that the Regulations are far weaker than international standards. I'll give a fuller report on this tomorrow.

Yesterday I wrote about the hospitality that Dr. Miriam Stoppard is offering to health journalists on behalf of Nestlé, which is trying once again to break into the UK formula market, this time using a marketing strategy of sponsoring health workers, who are somewhat reluctant to accept its largesse. As someone commented on that blog, there is a link from Dr. Miriam Stoppard's website to the IDFA website as a source of extra information. Funnily enough I haven't seen any links on the website to independent sources of information such as the government's own NHS Direct website.

Let us hope that if IDFA and the Conservative Party do have their way and the 2007 Regulations fall, enforcement action for the 1995 Regulations will immediately follow. Action over these non-compliant labels is long overdue.

If Heinz is ordered to recall the label introduced in anticipation of the 2007 Regulations, shown as the example above, then the Conservative leader, David Cameron MP, can claim some of the credit.

No comments: