Nestlé held to account over infant formula inaction and using science as ‘marketing tool’

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

A report claims that Nestlé failed to act on criticisms of its baby milk formula products and their composition in an investigation that also accuses the food giants of inaction over previous vows.

Changing Markets Foundation and SumOfUs make available its findings​ that accuse the firm of continuing to provide contradictory advice or use claims prohibited by the World Health Organization (WHO) Marketing Code.

This is despite commitments made by the company following a report​ by Changing Markets and the NGO Globalization Monitor in February 2018, which looked at Nestlé’s products and nutritional claims in over 40 countries.

Adequate nutrition for infants and young children is critical for healthy development,” said ​Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director from the Changing Markets Foundation.

“If mothers cannot or chose not to breastfeed, companies like Nestlé have a huge responsibility to provide products that are safe, nutritionally complete and informed by the best available science.

“Our report confirms that Nestlé continues to use science as merely a marketing tool, valuing higher profit margins over its scientific credibility.”

Infant formula and breastmilk

One of the report’s findings centres on Nestlé’s approach in positioning its infant formula products as “being close to breast milk or inspired by human milk,”​- a practice forbidden under the World Health Organization (WHO) marketing code.

According to the report, this put Nestlé’s scientific credibility into question, as there was a clear scientific consensus that formula could never be close to breast milk.

The report’s authors offers Nestlé’s Illuma infant formula product as an example of this breach. Sold mainly in Hong Kong, the investigation found the product sold under the trademark “Human Affinity Formula”.

Additionally, its website states that Nestlé is “dedicated to unveil [sic] the mystery of human milk… replicating as nature intended with revolutionary technologies”.

Despite WHO’s efforts, exclusive breastfeeding rates remain at around 40% globally, with breastfeeding figures notably lower in Hong Kong and mainland China, where a third of new-borns are given formula as their first feed.

These markets are two of the biggest and most lucrative markets for the formula milk industry, representing 43% of the total.

The report, entitled ‘Based on science? Revisiting Nestle’s infant milk products and claims,’ ​also found a big price differences between different markets.

It found a 96.7% price difference between the most expensive and cheapest products in Hong Kong alone.

Such premiumisation is hugely problematic since infant formulas are nutritionally equivalent as all the ingredients that have proven benefits have to be added by law.

New mothers and families need more support and access to independent information - right from the very start – however they choose to feed their babies​,” said Sue Ashmore, programme director at Unicef UK.

“There are dozens of infant milks on the supermarket shelves, many making claims of health-giving properties or the ability to control hunger, sleep, reflux, etc.

“There is little scientific evidence to back up these marketing claims – if a formula ingredient was definitely beneficial for infant health it would be in all infant formula by law,” ​she added.

“We urgently need better legislation to protect families from these misleading marketing claims, and better promotion of evidence based, unbiased information about infant feeding.”

Nestlé response

Responding to the accusations, a spokesperson for Nestlé said they “shared the authors’ concerns about the current rates of breastfeeding and nutrition status of children and agreed that current breastfeeding rates in Hong Kong and China were not sufficient”.

“We believe breast-milk is the best nutritional choice for an infant and that breastfeeding plays a fundamental role in a baby’s growth and development during the first 1000 days,” ​they said.

“We apply the WHO (World Health Organization) Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes and subsequent WHA (World Health Assembly) resolutions as implemented by member states. We have put in place a number of compliance measures and mechanisms to ensure compliance.

“We encourage anyone with concerns regarding our practices to share them with us. We are determined to respond systematically.

‘Inspired by breastmilk’

The spokesperson added that Nestlé did not use any statements that idealised its products or imply that they were superior to or equivalent to breastmilk on our infant formula labels or communications materials.

“Infant formulas have evolved and are compositionally closer to human milk than unmodified cow’s milk. As such, we communicate that products are ‘’inspired by breastmilk’’.

“For infants who cannot be fed on breast milk as recommended, infant formula is recognised by WHO as the only suitable breast milk substitute.”

“Furthermore, pricing is determined by many factors including import duties, local taxes, costs of production and distribution and trade margins.”

The report called on Nestlé to “demonstrate leadership”​ in the industry with a series of recommendations that included utilising scientific research to create the best products for infant nutrition.

“If an ingredient is beneficial for infant health, it should be in all products. If ingredients are not deemed healthy, they should be in none.”

Other recommendations called for an independent review of its product range at a global level to ensure that only infant milks with composition based on the best science were sold and were priced appropriately and fairly across all markets

The report also wanted to see a company policy that aligned fully with the Code, which was implemented across all countries, regardless of national legislation and countries deemed ‘low’ and ‘high’ risk.

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