Speaking at the one-day event in Paris last week, Dr Richard Zelenka, head of medical and scientific affairs at Humana, said that it is not worthwhile for multinational infant formula manufacturers to breach marketing rules as they risk repercussions that “ultimately show up in the balance sheet.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, the values of which have been adopted completely or in part by countries around the world, supports restrictions on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes such as infant formula. According to a recent WHO report, 69 countries currently prohibit the advertising of these products, while 83 have introduced legislation requiring a message about the superiority of breastfeeding on labels.
Leading firms have on numerous occasions, however, been accused of failing to adhere to these restrictions.
But according to Zelenka, manufacturers are generally not willing to risk their reputations by cutting corners when it comes to marketing.
“It’s about credibility,” he said. “It’s about long-term credibility.”
“In China there have of course been some issues of this type, but none of the big companies I am aware of would really try to go against the regulations.”
“It could be criminal, it could be illegal, and it would be foolish of them," he told attendees.
The aim of the Code, which was adopted by WHO in 1981, is to “contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breast-feeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution.”
Zenith International chairman Richard Hall, who chaired the panel, pressed Zelenka on whether these regulations were actually constraining infant formula manufacturers.
Responding, Zelenka said that he believes the industry "can communicate" with consumers "sufficiently enough" while sticking to the rules.
“The market, at least in some parts of the world, is growing, which is a sign that people understand our message," he said.
“I feel that with marketing activities, that the playground is essentially level for everyone.”
"Goal is healthy kids"
Vandana Chawla, nutrition consultant at Hero Baby Egypt, and Richard Walton, manager of Meiji’s R&D support centre near Tokyo, joined Zelenka on the Infant Nutrition Conference panel.
Weighing in, Walton said that marketing violations have never been an issue for Meiji in Japan.
“I think the situation in Japan is a bit different. You don’t have misrepresentation because you don’t have advertising," said Walton.
He added, however, that dialogue between the industry and breastfeeding advocates such as Baby Milk Action (BMA) is vital to bring an end to the issue worldwide.
“Engagement is the only way to approach this and hopefully the goal is the same. So if you can talk with the people and realize that your goal is healthy kids, then hopefully you can some to an agreement," he said.