Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Nestle links to UK Department of Health

Firstly, many thanks to everyone who sent birthday wishes last week!

While having a kind of break, there were still things going on, not least because this is National Breastfeeding Awareness Week in the UK. There was a conference in London which Baby Milk Action attended on Monday. More about that later.

In the build up there was an article in the Independent on Sunday concerning the Members of Parliament that Nestlé took to South Africa in February. Regular readers of this blog will know that one of them, Tom Levitt MP, has since launched a campaign defending Nestlé practices in the country, which comes at a very sensitive time as the South African government is looking to strengthen regulations. It turns out one of the other MPs on the all-expenses-paid trip represents a UK Department of Health minister in Parliament. The Independent led on this in its article Breast vs bottle: the new battleground.

This opens: "Efforts to encourage more women to breastfeed are being threatened by "aggressive" lobbying directed at the Government by the baby milk manufacturing industry, campaigners warned yesterday. The powdered milk manufacturer Nestlé has forged formal links with the Department of Health and took a ministerial aide on an all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa, The Independent on Sunday has discovered."

There is a quote from me: "Time and again we see Nestlé trying to ingratiate itself with health workers and policymakers through gifts, free trips, sponsorship and so-called partnerships. Surely the Government should not look to companies to fund and organise trips such as this. If there is a legitimate public interest in fact-finding in South Africa, it should be publicly funded."

The article did present the issue as 'Breast v. Bottle', missing the point that we are working to protect breastfeeding and babies fed on formula. The introduction to a discussion board accompanying the article similarly missed the point, stating:

"The government is considering calls to ban the big baby milk firms from promoting follow-on formula. But companies like Nestle are mounting fierce lobbying campaigns targeting the Department of Health as well as mums. Should Nestle be allowed to advertise and mums make their own minds up? Or should Nestle be reined in so the government can promote the message that breast is best?"

I commented as follows. See:

---comment on Indy discussion board

This question is a little misleading. Health advocates such as Baby Milk Action have been calling for government action to protect breastfeeding AND to protect babies fed on formula. So-called 'information' provided by companies is always idealizing and often inaccurate. For example, companies boast of the benefits of LCPs and prebiotics in formula, yet independent analysis of the research by bodies such as the respected Cochrane Library finds the claims are not supported. See:

Companies are fighting against requirements that they warn parents who do use powdered formula that it is not sterile and the simple steps that can be followed to reduce the risks from possible intrinsic contamination with harmful bacteria.

For parents to be able to make up their own mind they need accurate, independent information, not company propaganda.

A good illustration of the issue and the dangers of Nestle-funded trips, is the situation in South Africa. One of the MPs on that trip, Tom Levitt MP, has launched a campaign attempting to persuade people Nestle follows high standards in its marketing of infant formula and is defending the company's advertising and labelling in South Africa. This is despite the fact that the Department of Health in South Africa has said Nestle's claims for its NAN infant formula break national labeling laws:

"statements such as "optimal physical and mental development", "activate your baby's immune defences" and "strengthen your baby's natural defences" as indicated on the labels are just some examples of prohibited statements on NAN 1 and 2".

Babies fed on formula are denied the protection from infection provided by breastmilk and so more likely to become sick and in conditions of poverty more likely to die. Those that are fed with formula would be less at risk if Nestle brought warnings and instructions into line with those called for by the World Health Assembly.

The South African government is currently trying to introduce strengthened regulations and it is a disgrace that Tom Levitt, who has also enjoyed free tickets to Wimbledon tennis competition from Nestle, is undermining their efforts. See:

We have requested a meeting with Mr. Levitt many times, so far without success.

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