Saturday, October 28, 2006

Health claims - a goldmine

As explained yesterday, we have to counter the lobbying of the industry folk who pack out the meetings about the Food Code (known as Codex Alimentarius). Our task is to ensure the interests of infants and their families are put before company profits. We often find governments are also pushing the industry line. That is the governments of rich industrialised countries where the companies are based. Developing countries are generally doing all they can to protect infants, and to defend the requirements adopted by the World Health Assembly. Yet they have a problem in getting to these events because of the expense. They are also prey to the companies who offer to fund or even provide experts to attend the meetings. Codex Alimentarius has set up a fund to help fund representatives from developing countries (which we campaigned to be kept free from industry influence), but even so there is a big imbalance.

One of the hot issues at last year's World Health Assembly was the use of health claims about formula. Monitoring we and our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) do shows how companies use health claims to promote breastmilk substitutes (here's some from the UK).

You may have seen things like this in company materials: "Recent studies have shown that feeding your baby with an infant formula fortified with LCPs may lead to improved IQ scores and better eyesight in later life. LCPs are naturally present in breast milk." (This is from SMA).

If you are not breastfeeding and want the best formula for your baby, it would seem wrong not to buy the formula with the LCPs if you read this. That is what the companies rely on and all have rushed to add LCPs.

LCPs are Long Chain Poly Unsaturated Fatty Acids (also known as LCPUFAs). Yet the word 'may' is very deliberate in SMA's claim above. Independent evaluation of the research has been done by an expert organisation, called the Cochrane Library, which found: "At present there is little evidence from randomised trials of LCPUFA supplementation to support the hypothesis that LCPUFA supplementation confers a benefit for visual or general development of term infants".

The companies are being a little bit naughty then.

After a debate at the World Health Assembly last year governments agreed a Resolution saying they were: "Concerned that nutrition and health claims may be used to promote breast-milk substitutes as superior to breastfeeding".

So they called on all governments who are members of the World Health Assembly: "to ensure that nutrition and health claims are not permitted for breast-milk substitutes...". However, there was pressure from the rich countries and additional words were added: "...except where specifically provided for in national legislation."

So health and nutrition claims are prohibited unless they are allowed.

Which means country by country, the same arguments have to happen over again. We have just gone through this at the European Union. A new EU law (a Directive) on infant and follow-on formula allows companies to put on labels an: "added LCP or an equivalent nutrition claim."

Which could legitimize the type of promotional strategies used by the companies.

Our view is if something is really necessary to improve formula then it should be in all formulas. Infants who are not breastfed are already at a disadvantage. Why make that worse by allowing companies to sell products without essential ingredients?

But are LCPs necessary? The European Union's expert Scientific Committee said prior to the new Directive:

"Having reviewed the available literature the Committee sees the evidence insufficient to set an obligatory minimum level of LCPUFA." That is, there is insufficient evidence that LCPs should be added as an essential ingredient.

So the European Union is allowing companies to make claims about added LCPs even though the the evidence does not suggest there is any benefit from them.

At the meetings on the Food Code over the next few days the European Union is fighting for the agenda of the baby food industry in arguing that health claims should be permitted.

As I said yesterday, this work can be tedious, but words are important. Important in regulations and important for marketing.

Just how important health claims are for marketing is demonstrated if we look back in time to when a company called Martek came up with new ways of manufacturing LCPs, which it marketed as Formulaid. Today Martek supplies most of the big formula companies. Back then market analysts Hambrecht & Quist strongly recommended investors to buy shares in Martek Biosciences. They saw a goldmine.

This is what they said back in the 1990s about the additives Martek had come up with:

"The history of infant formula has shown that virtually all similar examples have led to wide-scale introduction of such additives into infant formula, even if there was no evidence that the additives were important. Infant formula is currently a commodity market with all products being almost identical and marketers competing intensely to differentiate their product. Even if Formulaid had no benefit we think that it would be widely incorporated into most formulas as a marketing tool and to allow companies to promote their formula as 'closest to human milk.'"

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

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