Tuesday, March 11, 2008

UK Government defends formula regulations in Parliament

The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations 2007 were discussed in the UK Parliament last week (5 March 2008). You can read the full record here:

This was because the opposition Conservative Party was trying to halt them coming into force. The good news is the Minister for Public Health, Dawn Primarolo MP, stood up to this challenge. However there was amgibuity about a promised 12-month review and what it would consider - its terms of reference may be too limited to address all the concerns of health advocates.

The Conservative Party challenge follows the baby food industry taking the government to the High Court in January. That case ended in February with a ruling in favour of the industry for when labelling requirements will come into effect, but fears that delays might be made to other parts of the Regulations of they would be struck down were not realised. There are still rulings to be made in Northern Ireland and Scotland (where the hearing has already taken place and the industry did at one stage try to delay the advertising requirements coming into force for two years) and we await the outcome of those.

The government is deciding whether to appeal the high court ruling, but the Regulations have otherwise come into force. Parliament has the opportunity still to block the Statutory Instrument that sets out the Regulations, but not to ammend it (which is a shame really because the government ignored the health expert advice, including from its own experts, to bring in weak and unnecessarily complex regulations).

The Conservatives had tabled a 'prayer' to strike down the regulations, which started a process of discussing whether this should happen. Peter Bottomley MP for the Conservatives saw the court case as a complicating the situation and said in the Parliamentary Committee hearing:

'There are two ways of resolving the dilemma. The first is for a discussion to take place between the usual channels in which the prayer and the statutory instrument are withdrawn, which would mean our procedures coming to an end. That has happened in the past. The second is for the Government simply to withdraw the statutory instrument anyway, or to say, through the usual channels, “Can we suspend the sitting and return, even if nothing is withdrawn, to allow time for consideration.”'

Dawn Primarolo MP was emphatic - "I am not prepared to withdraw the statutory instrument." She explained that the court case required only a change to the date on which labelling provisions came into force, which was in the government's power to change. Everything else stood and was necessary.

Annette Brooke MP for the Liberal Democrats raised the question of the promised review:

"For those of us who would like the regulations to go further, the review is of great importance. Will the Minister outline exactly what is proposed and when that review will start? She might have to give me various options, given the court decision. Nevertheless, it would be nice to have them. One thing about the court decision that concerns me is the fact that everything is getting pushed back in time; we want some of the changes to be implemented as soon as possible. The statistics and our international comparisons speak for themselves—there is an urgent need for action."

In response to this Dawn Primarolo said: " I shall briefly answer the hon. Lady. At the heart of the discussion in the review of advertising by the Food Standards Agency is the marketing in relation to infants of what is called follow-on formula. That is what the regulations seek to prevent, so the guidance lays out what should not happen, on current practice. We will then monitor that through the 12 months."

This is ambiguous, as the Baby Feeding Law Group, consisting of 22 health worker organisations and mother support groups, has submitted reports to government consultations calling for a broader review. Will that happen?

The way follow-on formula is marketed is one issue, and not even the most important one in my view. The latest BFLG report: "Trying to make the UK's weak formula law work" sets out the lessons learned from the 12 years of monitoring the effectiveness of the 1995 Regulations. Companies promote formula with idealizing claims, inducements and attacks on breastfeeding and do not provide parents and carers who use formula with necessary information on their products.

The impact of company promotion on understanding of infant feeding issues is what the review primarily needs to consider, with a view to strengthening the provisions if this is found to be necessary.

A investigation of whether promotion of follow-on formula, which is permitted in the UK is serving as de facto infant formula advertising, which is prohibited is a necessary part. The government has suggested it will prohibit follow-on formula advertising as many other countries and international standards do, if need be.

There is also a focus in the discussion on breastfeeding. We highlight the regulations are also to provide better protection for those who use formula. There are serious failings in the regulations in this regard and they need to be evaluated and corrected.

We ran a campaign asking people to send messages to the government supporting the BFLG position of making the review inclusive enough to evaluate the impact of all aspects of marketing. We will continue to raise it.

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