Although EU Legislation on baby food marketing fails to meet WHO marketing requirements, in terms of food safety, the Precautionary Principle and the EU charter of Fundamental Rights, EU laws are important and stronger than many. World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules in comparison are essentially the lowest common denominator to do trade in 21st Century.
The WTO was established in 1995, to be specifically outside the United Nations (UN) system with no direct obligation to take into consideration the Declaration of Human Rights (which all UN bodies must do). WTO must however respect the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) and in the event of a trade dispute, it is mandated to refer to Codex Alimentarius standards the body that sets global trading standards for foods and commodities.
Unlike the World Health Organisation (WHO), the world’s highest health policy setting body, Codex has a dual mandate: to protect the health of the consumers and ensure fair practices in the food trade. Its meetings are dominated by powerful food and agro-chemical industries and the industrialised countries such as the United States that so often protect their interests instead of public health.
Baby Milk Action – IBFAN UK has attended Codex nutrition meetings every year since 1995 in order to strengthen Codex standards and bring them into line with WHO recommendations. When Codex standards protect health, countries that want to adopt effective laws are far less likely to face challenges.
IBFAN’s aim is not just to protect breastfeeding but to ensure that infants who have a “medically indicated or social” need for artificial feeding are protected and that products contain appropriate nutrients and minimal additives and contaminants and informative labelling.
There are many differences between the standards allowed in the EU and those allowed in the United States, reflecting a totally different approach to food quality and marketing. The US opposes the Precautionary Principle (PP) and requires evidence of harm before regulating and preventing a product being placed on the market. Consumer safety in the US relies heavily on consumers taking legal action if they can prove that the product has caused harm. In the EU the PP is embedded in legislation, so when actions are at risk of causing “serious or irreversible” harm to the natural environment, marketers are expected to step back and choose a different route.
The First Steps Nutrition Trust outlines what this means in relation to the labelling and composition of infant formula, where US milks have higher levels of sucrose and many other risky ingredients. US milks can be made from milk from cows where recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), a synthetic growth hormone, has been used, and this would not be identifiable on labels. (1)
The use of growth hormones and routine use of antibiotics in intensive farming where animals are packed together to cut costs, is linked to the new threat of Anti-Microbial Resistance (AMR). The EU phased out the routine use of antibiotic growth promoters between 1997 & 2006 ( a new EU law will come into effect in 2022) so is having to defend these higher standards at Codex. Without effective action at national and global level, common infections and minor injuries – the kinds of things we have been able to treat for decades – will emerge as killers once more. It is not clear whether the UK would support the EU or the US in relation to a ban on antibiotic use in animal husbandry.
(1) How does legislation on infant formula composition and labelling differ in the UK and US?Infant formula imported from the US may well have been made from milk from cows where recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), a synthetic growth hormone, has been used, and this would not be identifiable on labels