Taking action against misleading marketing

Patti Rundall.  20 August 2018

Building on her interview on Dispatches, this guest blog from Baby Milk Action’s Patti Rundall discusses misleading marketing of breastmilk substitutes and how we can better protect families from commercial interests. 

C4’s Dispatches, Breastfeeding Uncovered, focused primarily on the lack of support for breastfeeding women in the UK – and included just a quick look at what the baby food industry has contributed to this problem.

The painful experiences shown often came down to bad advice or no support. In a culture where bottle feeding has become the norm, we’ve lost breastfeeding skills, and the state of UK knowledge about something so basic and important is shocking. But let’s not forget the role the baby feeding industry has had on that culture. On top of its marketing budgets, this industry has poured funds into nutrition education,1 health professional training and parental advice, designed to encourage the use of their products. With tempting funds on offer, it’s easy to forget that commercial meddling in public health and education is a big risk. Many messages that undermine breastfeeding, including the idea of the ‘hungry baby’, of not having enough milk, of soreness and pain being inevitable, lie at the baby food industry’s door. And it’s intentional. Indeed, it’s at the heart of a global, centuries old strategy to destroy breastfeeding and grow a lucrative market.

Cow & Gate advert: “I’m thinking about getting a T Shirt made – ‘Danger! Sore boobs’.

The strategy was formed around the idea that mothers had better things to do with their time than nurse their babies … We were appealing to the idea that if you nursed your babies that you might suffer from what is referred to as ‘bosom sag’ and that this would be obviated of course if you used these marvellous products … I don’t recall anyone ever suggesting that the water be boiled or anything.

1989 interview with Harry, a retired advertising consultant about advertising project for Nestlé in the mid 1970s.

Unpicking the marketing claims

The Dispatches team asked me to look at a range of Infant Formulas (IFs), Follow-on Formulas (FUFs) and so-called ‘Growing up Milks’ (GUMs) that Kate, the presenter, had just bought. Easy. The packaging was covered in idealising images – teddy bears, shields, hearts and claims that were easy to shoot down. What I didn’t expect was Kate to say that she had believed the ‘specially formulated for your baby’ claim – and that maybe the formula was actually better than her own breastmilk. The industry would never admit to making such a claim and I’d forgotten how clever and misleading that one is. They are describing a product that can stay on the shelf for up to two years and is traded globally to millions of babies who live in vastly different environments. The only thing that was ‘specially formulated’ for Kate was the marketing message.

There were astonished responses to my statement that none of the products – except the newborn infant formulas – were necessary or recommended by the UK or the World Health Organisation, and that all the formulas for babies over 6 months (that look identical to infant formula) had been invented by the baby food industry with the direct aim of getting round the advertising bans that apply to newborn formula. The composition of these products are less well regulated than newborn formula, and yet they are freely advertised. Indeed, when Prof Michael Crawford at London Zoo analysed some FUFs for us in 1984, he said they were more like rhinoceros milk than human milk and UK health visitors, alarmed at their composition, said they should be considered a ‘pudding’.

Baby Milk Action and IBFAN have campaigned against FUFs since the early 1980s; we succeeded in getting the age of use raised from 4 months to 6 months for the UK, and the 1986 World Health Assembly (WHA) Resolution said these products were not necessary. But the adoption of the Follow-up Formula Standard (Codex STAN- 156-19872) in 1987 ensured their global trade and unlimited misleading marketing ever since. While their composition improved in the EU, the marketing got worse and sales boomed.3 It’s been an amazing success story for pure marketing hype.

Over the years WHO has issued several reinforcing warnings, but its clearest guidance came in 20164– saying that all formulas targeting babies 0-36 months function as breastmilk substitutes and are covered by the 1981 International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes (The Code) and subsequent relevant WHA Resolutions – a clear message that national controls should end this misleading marketing. But without a strong political will to enforce it, this message won’t be enacted – a problem we’ve recently seen on the global stage at the WHA.

What can we do?

There are many ways we can take action on these issues to better protect public health:

  • Support Baby Milk Action-IBFAN’s work to protect all families, whether breastfeeding or bottle feeding, from misleading marketing
  • Raise awareness of resources from First Steps Nutrition Trust, designed to provide health professionals and families with information about infant feeding which is free from commercial interest
  • Sign up to Unicef UK Baby Friendly Initiative’s Call to Action campaign, urging UK governments to support breastfeeding and protect all families from commercial interests.

So, while we think about the UK, nutrition, food safety and child health, let’s not forget the commercial interests that lie behind the dismantling of public health safeguards and the importance of us all standing up for accurate, unbiased and independent infant feeding support for all families.


  1. A US delegate to Codex told me that she saw marketing as a form of education – I could see why we would never see eye-to-eye on the right to accurate independent information.
  2. Codex Alimentarius Commission is the UN’s standard setting body.
  3. FUFs are almost identical compositionally to IF in the EU, but there are no rules for GUMs. FUFs and GUMs are fuelling the rise in global formula sales  – predicted to reach $70 billion in 2019. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(16)00103-3/fulltext
  4. WHO, Guidance on ending the inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children: http://www.who.int/nutrition/topics/guidance-inappropriate-food-promotion-iyc/en/

Visit our blog to hear more from people interviewed on this week’s Dispatches.  Amy Brown, Sue Ashmore and Emma Pickett


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