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Lies, lies and more lies: 3 year government crackdown can't keep formula companies from misleading consumers

Canada has signed the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. The Canadian government encourages the infant formula industry to comply with the Code, which means not marketing or promoting infant formula in any way. I explained this and more in my post that concluded Nestle and other infant formula manufacturers do aggressively promote infant formula in countries, like Canada, that are signatories to the WHO Code.

That is old news to anyone in the infant health or breastfeeding advocacy community. However, what is new is that the Government of Canada has admitted how ineffective its attempts to stop infant formula manufacturers from using unproven or misleading claims have been. In an article entitled Canadian infant formula crackdown fails to make baby steps, Sarah Schmidt wrote about documents released to Canwest News under an access to information request about a three-year government crackdown on infant formula manufacturers:
The joint initiative of Health Canada and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency began in 2007 after officials spent a year fielding complaints about how advertising and labelling of infant formula is used to win the business of new parents.

According to a summary of the initiative prepared by the project manager at CFIA, the effort to get the companies to change their marketing was a failure.

"Three years later: Absolutely no impact on market!" he concluded in his slide presentation.

In addition to "insufficient resources to do inspections," there was "resistance from companies regarding changing the claims that are made on labels."

The Canadian government is very concerned about the high levels of non-compliance in the infant formula industry.  The claims made by formula companies violate regulations with regards to nutrient content claims or health claims. According to the article by Sarah Schmidt:
Alleged violations pertained to claims of improved digestibility, reduced colic or fussiness, or reduced risk of allergies, the records state. Others related to claims about the fatty acids DHA or ARA and improving visual acuity or supporting brain development

While the government is considering legal action against the formula companies, it has not yet initiated any prosecutions. The government is continuing discussions with companies like Nestle (Good Start and Followup), Mead Johnson (Enfamil and Enfalac) and Abbott Laboratories (Similac and Isomil). While the companies claim that they are committed to complying with regulations, they are also digging in their heels and standing by their health claims in most cases. The companies say that their health claims are substantiated by evidence, but it is important to note that this is not independent scientific evidence. It does not even come close to the substantive body of evidence in support of breastfeeding.

If you hear anyone going on about how they chose this formula or that formula because it is the best, you're very likely talking to a victim of deceptive marketing practices. Infant formula is a convenient safety net when breastfeeding isn't possible. But it isn't all that the formula companies claim it is. But if you believe that it is, I have some beautiful oceanfront property in Saskatchewan that I'd love to sell to you.

The government needs to do more. It needs to ban formula advertising and promotion outright in Canada. It needs to follow through on its signing of the WHO Code and make it law. Then it needs to conduct inspections, investigations, and hand out hefty fines. The infant formula companies are only paying lip service to caring about this issue. They will not change until they are forced to.

Image credit: jonfeinstein on flickr
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Reader Comments (4)

It is very disappointing that more isn't being done to formula companies. If the government admits breast is best, perhaps it's time to put their money where their mouths are.

January 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterErynne M.

Unlike formula, which they still haven't passed a law for despite signing the innocenti declaration there is a law preventing the marketing of any food, except for "breast milk substitutes" to babies under 6 months of age. It is, in fact, a law.

So most baby food companies now list this as their stages: "Stage 1 start about a month before Stage 2", "Stage 2, start about a month before stage 3", "Stage 3, start at around 6 months" or similar. Sometimes there is only one stage before the "start at 6 months". Apparently that is "ok" because no where does it explicitly say to start before 6 months.

You can view the Heinz one here (yes this is their Canadian site):

I'm really sick of no one bothering to enforce the law. Which is why I don't really care if they ban formula marketing for babies under 6 months -it won't make any difference. In the UK where the law is enforced I have recently viewed ads in magazines imported from there that are clearly from formula companies but do not mention that anywhere; all they talk about is their "free monthly parenting magazine" or "gift basket" or whatever. And since they have to get your permission before showing you information on formula I am sure there is some fine print, or maybe a check box -but people pay no attention. Then they get the ads, coupons, etc delivered straight to their house.

Society needs to change, not the law. The law can only go so far ahead of social change, and often lags behind. I wish that the Prime Minister could waive his magic wand and make formula a prescription item that is carried not just behind the counter but must be kept under it so you can't view the brand names and it must carry a black box warning on it. I wish he could make milk banking available every single place there are blood banks. But its just not possible.

January 24, 2010 | Unregistered Commentermystic_eye_cda

[...] type of marketing. To be clear, on a sliding scale this is not even close to Enfamil or Nestle or other formula companies. Not even close. But I would argue, and others do argue, that any violation of the WHO Code weakens [...]

[...] Has admitted that it its attempts to stop infant formula manufacturers from using unproven or misleading.... [...]

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