Thursday, May 22, 2008

Reality check at the Brazilian National Breastfeeding Conference

Today I am due to speak at Brazil's National Breastfeeding Conference about breastfeeding and corporations. As you can imagine I will be talking about the importance of the baby food marketing regulations adopted by the World Health Assembly, the results of monitoring that show these are being systematically broken where there are not enforced regulations and what we can do to change the situation.

I find these meetings refreshing, depressing, challenging and energising.

Refreshing because I have to spend far too much of my time trying to convince people there is a problem of aggressive baby food marketing that needs to be addressed, rather than mobilizing those who are already convinced. With companies such as Nestlé denying any wrong doing and using a wide range of strategies to persuade people it can sometimes be difficult. I call Nestlé strategy 'mid-point bias'. It relies on people thinking the truth must lie somewhere between its position and that of health advocates, such as Baby Milk Action. Nestlé has no qualms about being outright dishonest about its activities, whereas we stick to the truth (and if we couldn't stand by what we say about Nestlé then we would have been sued into bankruptcy long ago). So Nestlé moves the mod-point away from the reality. See:

So the refreshing aspect of these meetings is I am with people who are familiar with what Nestlé and the other companies are doing, because it is part of their daily reality. Our focus is what needs to be done.

The opening address last night from Jean Pierre Allain was recalling the efforts that were made to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in Brazil - he was an advisor to the process. The industry tried to weaken the regulations, with Nestlé taking the lead and trying to undermine these, including through its financial support to the Paediatric Association. The regulations did come into force 20 years ago, though not as strongly as health advocates wanted. It has taken two revisions to make them as strong as they are today.

The Brazilian campaign is particularly strong, with members of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) coordinating training and monitoring activities across the country. IBFAN Brazil organises the National Breastfeeding Conference every two years and attracts typically over 1,000 participants and a strong programme of national and international experts. I feel very priviliged to be one of them.

I have written previously about how strong the regulations are here. The type of aggressive marketing we see in many other countries does not happen in Brazil. Here concerns are about warning labels on whole milks. We helped with a campaign last year as the industry tried to weaken the wording of the 'Ministry of Health Warning' on labels of whole milk, saying it should not be used for infant feeding. This has been changed to say 'Ministry of Health Information'. Viewed against strategies such as Nestlé's advertising of formula on the shelves in supermarkets in South Africa and it claims on labels that formula provides 'protection', this concern may seem much less serious.

But speaking to a Brazilian colleague, I realised once again why it is such a concern here. And this is where it gets depressing. The concern in many parts of Brazil, particularly the poorer parts, is not that parents are using formula rather than breastfeeding, because many cannot afford formula. It is that they are using unsuitable products such as whole milks and, mentioned time and time again, Nestlé Ninho powdered milk in particular, which is promoted for feeding young children with all sorts of claims of the benefits it will bring.

We have a campaign trying to stop Nestlé promoting Ninho in the infant feeding sections of pharmacies and supermarkets. Nestlé's response is that whole milk is not infant formula so there are not breaking any rules by promoting it in this way! Ninho is typically a third of the price of the infant formula on the shelf next to it and research has shown that in poor communities mothers who bottle feed are more likely to use milks like this than formula. Here is a picture I took in a pharmacy a few years ago, which is on our site at:

These practices continue and people here have to deal with the consequences.

They also want help in stopping them.

I am here in part to talk about the Nestlé boycott because it is seen by Brazilian campaigners as a particularly powerful support for their work in defence of infant health. The fact that Nestlé is one of the most boycotted companies on the planet makes it a little easier to counter its well-resourced lobbying.

I'll be showing the newspaper cutting of the action being taken on the Scottish Parliament mentioned here last week. See:

That solidarity makes a real difference to people, as do the letter writing campaigns, exposés and everything else we, and you, do.

Which I find very energising.

Brazil is a success story in that breastfeeding rates have increased markedly over the past 20 years thanks to the marketing regulations and parallel efforts to promote and support breastfeeding. The median breastfeeding duration has gone from 3 months to 10 months.

It hasn't been easy and there are still challenges. There is a new attack on the baby food marketing regulations I am hearing about and to which we have to respond. I know now I'll have the energy to do it!

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