Monday, January 04, 2010

Early use of the Freedom of Information Act by Baby Milk Action

As The Guardian reports today, the UK Freedom of Information Act is five years old:

I used the FOI Act back in 2005 to obtain information from Ofcom regarding a television sponsorship by Heinz for Farley's formula. Advertising of infant formula is illegal in the UK, but follow-on formula advertising is allowed.

For more details on the advertising campaign and complaint see:

International standards prohibit all advertising and make health workers responsible for advising parents (companies are limited to providing scientific and factual information to health workers). We see companies exploit this loophole in adverts that are ostensibly for follow-on formula, but promote the full range and direct parents to websites where infant formula is promoted. They also make health claims that are not substantiated by evidence, for example, claiming that formula builds the immune system whereas babies fed on it are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies (we have won cases at the voluntary Advertising Standards Authority, but that system does have serious flaws - another story).

Now, Ofcom had rejected a complaint about Heinz Farley's formula advertising (strapline 'closer - by nature') appearing on the Discovery channel and elsewhere, claiming it was clearly for follow-on formula. We said this was ridiculous as the only clue was the colour of the packshot in the advertisement.

The FOI Act led to a stack of document on the case (including copies of the letters I had sent to Ofcom), which included an email from Hillingdon Environmental Health (the home authority for Heinz) to Ofcom saying:

“I was unable to work out the precise product pictured in the video footage.”

There was also a reply from Ofcom’s investigator agreeing:

“I don’t know what product appears in the credits as no information is given on the pack shot. Discovery have told us that the product was follow-on formula.”

So Ofcom had let Heinz through the loophole, even though their own expert was confused. In its written response Ofcom had suggested it was obvious what product was being advertised : “...the purple background correlated with follow-on products. We do not see therefore where the connection to infant formula can be made.”

As a footnote, following on from this and other examples of the loophole being exploited, all UK health bodies and the government's own Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition called for follow-on formula to be treated the same as infant formula as regard advertising. However, the government refused these requests when introducing new legislation in 2007, instead following the industry line.

We continue to monitor and expose how the law is failing mothers and babies and call for the international standards introduced by the World Health Assembly to be implemented in the UK. See:

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