Turns Out, Major Formula Companies Are Violating These International Guidelines

by Annamarya Scaccia

Although there's no doubt that fed is best, research still supports that breastfeeding is the better way to provide infants with nutrition needed to grow healthy and strong. Studies have long linked breast milk, which is packed with beneficial nutrients, to improving development, warding off infection, and boosting immunity. Still, not all parents can or choose to nurse, which is why vitamin-rich baby formula is also necessary. Yet, a new report found that none of the major breast milk substitute manufacturers comply with international code, and that could hurt babies in the long run.

On Wednesday, the Access to Nutrition Foundation released its 2018 Access to Nutrition Index (ATNI) report, which is considered a leading authority on how international food & beverage companies should improve their products to be healthier, more accessible, and more affordable. And what the report found is that six of the world's major baby food manufacturers are not adhering to the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, a global health policy framework adopted in 1981 that dictates how baby formula is advertised and promoted in order to encourage and affirm breastfeeding.

The 2018 ATNI report discovered that, in Thailand and Nigeria alone, there were nearly 3,000 incidences of non-compliant marketing among the six businesses. Most of those marketing violations related to point-of-sale advertising found on websites for major online retailers, according to the report's findings.

In response to the findings in the 2018 Access to Nutrition Index report, 1,000 Days Executive Director Lucy Sullivan said in a statement:

We must do more to support women to breastfeed their babies for as long as they desire. That means companies selling infant formula have a responsibility to market their products ethically and in line with the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes, a blueprint for responsible business conduct among infant formula manufacturers.

Sullivan added that the new ATNI report "reaffirms a troubling fact:" That six of the world's largest baby food manufacturers are not following the WHO guidelines as they should. In fact, a 2015 Food and Nutrition Bulletin report found that companies shell out about $4 billion to $6 billion a year to market their formula to mothers and the general public. But advertising or promoting breast milk substitutes to the general public is not allowed under the code, nor is handing out free samples to new parents, whether directly or indirectly. Yet, the baby formula industry is guilty of doing both, according to The Huffington Post.

Sullivan continued in her statement:

This has major repercussions for public health. Breastfeeding is one of the most powerful tools to reduce infant mortality and has significant health benefits for both moms and babies. Yet the marketing of infant formula has been proven to undermine breastfeeding among women in the U.S. and around the world.

She added:

We must hold companies accountable for pushing profits at the expense of the health and well-being of babies. The release of the ATNI presents an important opportunity to do just that.

The WHO international code also prohibits point-of-sale promotions or other marketing ploys to increase consumer sales at the retail level, such as discount coupons, special displays, tie-in sales, or special sales. And, in addition to handing out free samples, companies are not allowed to distribute gifts, such as utensils, that would promote using formula or bottle-feeding over breastfeeding, according to the WHO code.

Research shows that infants and toddlers benefit greatly from breast milk, which is rich in vitamins and immunities that are not yet found in formula. By skirting the WHO international code, nursing proponents claim that breast milk substitute manufacturers are obstructing the encouragement of breastfeeding among mothers who could otherwise do so. And by getting in the way, baby food companies are actually hurting kids' chances of receiving the optimal nutrition they need to grow.