USA – The Lancet recently published a series of reports that highlight that the infant formula industry is using exploitative and “underhand” marketing strategies that are influencing millions of mothers not to breastfeed.

The reports were written by 25 experts including pediatricians, public health specialists, scientists, and public health specialists, from 12 countries.

The experts are calling for an urgent strengthening of regulations and an international legal treaty to end irresponsible formula milk marketing and political lobbying.

Nigel Rollins, a WHO Professor and a co-author of the reports, said, “The sale of commercial milk formula is a multi-billion-dollar industry which uses political lobbying alongside a sophisticated and highly effective marketing playbook to turn the care and concern of parents into a business opportunity.”

Fewer than half of infants globally are breastfed

The WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding of babies for the first six months and sustained breastfeeding alongside complementary feeding until the age of two years and above.

However, fewer than half of infants globally are currently being breastfed contrary to the recommendations due to the misleading marketing tactics used in the infant nutrition industry.

According to the reports, a common reason why women resort to infant formula is the misinterpretation that unsettled infant behavior such as disrupted sleep and persistent crying is a sign that breastmilk is insufficient.

This is however not true as infant sleep patterns vary from child to child and unsettled baby behaviors are common.

The formula milk industry uses poor science to suggest that their products offer solutions to these behaviors as well as other infant health and development challenges, as reported in the papers.

Voluntary code ineffective

The reports also point out how the World Health Assembly developed a voluntary International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981 to protect mothers against aggressive marketing practices by the infant formula industry.

This was triggered by “the baby killer” investigative report into Nestlé’s marketing of formula milk in the 1970s.

The industry is currently in violation of the Code which prohibits labels from idealizing the use of formulas and creating an untrue story to sell more product, according to Professor Richter from Wits University in South Africa.

The report informs that commercial milk formula sales have rapidly increased over the years and are now valued at more than US$55 billion a year.

According to a global infant formula market report, the market is projected to grow at a CAGR of 4.04% to reach a market size of US$62.066 billion by 2027.

The report also offers insight into the role of social media in the matter with industry-paid influencers sharing the challenges of breastfeeding preluding to formula milk marketing.

Industry-sponsored parenting applications with chat services that enable product placement and offer free samples and deals also contribute to the unregulated marketing of infant formula.

Nestle voices support for legislation

“There is no other food product for which there is an international code of marketing. Infant feeding affects survival, lifelong health, and child development. That makes how it is sold different,” said Dr Nigel Rollins a co-author and pediatrician in the MCH department at WHO.

Nestlé has stated its support to the national government’s efforts to promote conducive breastfeeding environments and optimal child nutrition.

‘The most effective way to secure the WHO Code compliance is through a well-drafted and well-implemented legislation.

Nestle is willing to actively engage with stakeholders to encourage implementation of the code and subsequent relevant resolutions into national laws,” said a Nestle spokesperson.

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