Thursday, February 22, 2007

Hard sell formula for underming breastfeeding in the UK

Yesterday I wrote about the latest monitoring from our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) in Brazil. Today the focus is on the UK, where legislation is narrow and enforcement weak. In the UK companies can roll out integrated strategies to undermine breastfeeding and generally get away with it.

It falls to Baby Milk Action, our partners in the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG) and supporters on the ground to call companies to account in the UK. Today Baby Milk Action has launched a pamphlet on behalf of BFLG explaining company strategies.

While we are perhaps best known for the Nestlé boycott, this is just one part of our range of strategies to protect infant and young child health. All aim towards stopping aggressive marketing by the baby food industry. Monitoring tells us what companies are up to in shops, health centres, on the internet, in targeting mothers. Staff conduct some monitoring themselves, particularly of product labels, but for a broader view of what goes on, supporters are our eyes, ears, documenters and photographers.

The Baby Feeding Law Group website has a monitoring section where members of the public and volunteers we have trained can report details of aggressive marketing. Reports on the site are updated periodically, showing how the baby food companies and retailers are violating the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly and even the weaker UK law.

These results have been picked up by the media in the past, as well as being fed into global monitoring snapshots, such as that coordinated by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) during World Breastfeeding Week in August last year, marking the 25th anniversary of the introduction of the International Code.

We have run letter-writing campaigns where supporters have called on companies to fulfil their obligations under the UK law and the Code and Resolutions. This has prompted a few minor changes, but generally the responses, when they have come, have shown how contemptuous of the measures companies are. This is useful for re-enforcing our case that the Code and Resolutions need to be introduced into legislation. See, for example,

In its public health white paper in 2004 the Government agreed to review the law and to work for the strengthening of the EU Directive from which it derives. This didn’t happen by chance. It came from campaigns we have run with our partners, our denouncing the lack of action to the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child, which called in 2002 for the Code to be implemented in the UK, from events at the House of Commons and from our supporters contacting their Members of Parliament and Ministers.

We now look forward to the review of the law. The monitoring evidence is an essential part of the campaign to show how the Code and Resolutions are being violated and how the law needs to be strengthened. I wish to thank all our supporters once again for submitting evidence. We have a range of reports and events planned for the coming months. First up, is this short pamphlet showing as starkly as we can the integrated strategy used by the baby food industry in the UK.

It is just 4 pages and so easy to digest. We aim to shock people into realising that while the companies claim they are simply providing information to those who ask for it, there is really a well thought out campaign to persuade women to look to the companies for advice on infant care, after which they are bombarded with formula brand names and promotional messages.

This starts even before the child is born. With the offer of prizes for signing up to company information services. Emails and mailshots then follow. Women are encouraged to call the company ‘careline’ or order leaflets and videos. One company has even targeted mothers when they go to the registry office to register the birth of their children.

Health workers are offered prizes to support the ‘carelines’. The pamphlet shows the credit-card-sized cards one company sent to health workers to give to mothers. Companies also send information materials to health workers with dubious claims about the advantages of their products and encourage them to order leaflets to pass on to mothers. To get closer to health workers they are invited to study days branded with formula names.

Mothers are then bombarded with promotional materials, through email, direct mail, advertising, at leisure facilities, health centres and crèches. ‘I’m thinking of getting a t-shirt made’, says one piece of direct mail we picture. ‘Danger! Sore boobs!’ At the bottom of this message is the formula brand name.

Companies will carry right on with these strategies and others still to be invented, until the law changes. Even then, the law will need enforcing. The current weak law is poorly enforced, as we explain in the pamphlet. Supermarkets repeat illegal promotion of infant formula with apparent impunity. Baby food companies run de facto advertisements for infant formula and the authorities are not even prepared to investigate. See

Not only is breastfeeding undermined, but mothers who decide to use formula receive misleading information and are not made aware of the risks of formula feeding or all the action that can be taken to reduce them.

So, download the pamphlet and direct people to the website to take a copy themselves. The link is:

We will have printed copies available in due course.

Our UK campaign is an essential part of our work. Infants at home deserve protection too, even if the sickness arising from artificial feeding is unlikely to lead to death as in poor settings.

In the past we had a Health Campaigns Coordinator to focus specifically on the UK situation, but due to funding cut backs our employed team of 3 has to fit in work on this issue alongside supporting overseas partners, promoting the boycott and achieving systemic changes at international level - such as at Codex Alimentarius - where far-reaching improvements are won, see

Donations to help with this work are always welcome. Donations can be made via our on-line shop. Or please consider becoming a member.

With our funding tight, any amount makes a difference and will enable us to have a bigger impact. There will, of course, also be the opportunity to take part directly in the campaign. And please do keep on monitoring.

By the end of the year I hope much of the aggressive marketing exposed in the pamphlet will be illegal so that breastfeeding is not undermined and so that mothers who do use formula have accurate information and clearer instructions on how to reduce risks.

Then I will write a blog explaining how the meetings, demonstrations, comments on draft regulations, letter writing campaigns and the monitoring helped to bring this about for the benefit of our children. This is how lives are saved, sickness reduced.

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