Weekly Comment

Infant nutrition: Too close for comfort?

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Infant formula, World health organisation, Baby food, Breastfeeding

Industry has to walk a tightrope between lending a benevolent hand
to support infant nutrition for the good of public health, and
cynical marketing that seems to cash in on sensitivities.

The market for formula milk is worth some €597m and formula manufacturers have been adding extra nutritional benefits like omega-3 and probiotics to make the product closer to the nutrient profile of breast milk. Quite rightly the World Health Organisation has rules in place to stop the promotion of infant formula at the cost of breast milk. But this is a very simplistic view of the complex world of marketing. Last week formula firm Nutricia handed over a "substantial donation"​ to the child obesity group Mend in the UK to help improve the health of toddlers and boost infant diet by educating parents. Owned by Royal Numico, the firm was criticised by breastfeeding lobbyists for being too involved. ​Nutricia said public health policies largely neglected toddler nutrition. If this is the case, then private money is a vital part of the jigsaw. But it also raises the question: can government's worldwide do more? Possibly one of the longest running boycotts of a food company has been organised by lobbyists against Nestle, and to this day still rages. The Nestle boycott was sparked by concerns over the Swiss firm's marketing practices of infant formula in less economically developed countries. As soon as companies become involved with charities, social enterprise and handing money to hospitals, it is only human nature that alarm bells begin ringing. We should be careful about jumping to conclusions. Private money could be vital and some of these firms - such as Nestle - have plenty of cash. If that money is used to help children lead a better, healthier life, and plug gaps in national health services, then all the better. On the other hand, if that is at the expense of a cheap marketing trick then the line has been crossed. But at what point is too much industry involvement? Lobbyists would say we are already at that point. Industry would beg to differ. There is a need for a transparent system of checks and balances. If industry wants to avoid unnecessary criticism, it could offer its own system of checks and balances. The question is, who should this come from? And if companies really want to keep some distance they could contribute to a fund which is administered by an independent group. For now, it seems the gauntlet has been left for watchdog groups, including Baby Milk Action and International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), to pick up and keep a close eye on companies' marketing tactics. A report by IBFAN listed some 3,000 violations by a dozen infant nutrition companies allegedly breaking rules on marketing. Nestle, Heinz and Numico were all featured in the report - but denied they had done anything wrong. The world's largest food company was blasted for "branding​" babies at birth in some Chinese hospitals with wrist bands with the Nestle name and logo on. Nestle said that under the WHO code they were allowed to donate equipment and materials to healthcare systems "with a company's name and logo - but not with a formula product name or brand." ​Should the day come when industry is wrapped on the knuckles and regulation outlaws any involvement, then parents, industry and infants could all find themselves the losers. And if it does we will be left asking: who is really thinking of the children? Alex McNally is a senior reporter with NutraIngredients.com and has lived and worked in France, Brussels and the UK. If you would like to comment on the piece, send an email to:nyrk.zpanyyl@qrpvfvbaarjf.pbz

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