Foods for infants and young children: a matter of concern?
World Breastfeeding Week, held on 1–7 August each year, sparks discussions across the WHO European Region around the growing international concern about infant feeding. Many commercial food products are marketed as suitable for babies from 4 months of age, potentially displacing breast-milk intake. Worryingly, sweet purées and snack foods that are high in free sugars dominate the marketplace.
WHO recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed until the age of 6 months, followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for up to 2 years, or longer.
The WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Office) has developed a model law on effective regulatory frameworks for ending the inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes for infants and young children in the Region.
Existing regulatory guidelines governing how these unsuitable products are formulated and marketed are outdated and insufficient. The model law will enable countries to strengthen their adherence to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, and protect young children from the harmful effects of inappropriate food marketing.
Improving commercial infant products
The model law has been endorsed by the 2022 status report on implementation of the International Code, which states, “Countries that have not revised their laws or regulations on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes in the past few years should use this report to identify gaps in coverage of all Code provisions and take action to update their legal measures.”
Patti Rundall, Policy Director for Baby Milk Action, a nongovernmental organization, says, “This model law is incredibly important. It is clear and easy to read and brings together all the global safeguards that policy-makers need to remember as they consider how to protect the rights of our youngest citizens. It is the perfect tool for those who want to bring legislation up to date and remove the loopholes that allow harmful marketing to flourish.”
Patti adds, “It is worth remembering that none of the proposed safeguards deny parents the right to decide how they feed their babies; they simply ensure that everyone gets full and frank information about the products on the market.”
Nutrient and promotion profiling
The NCD Office is also shining a spotlight on the issues associated with commercial infant products by developing the world’s first-ever Nutrient and Promotion Profile Model for infants and young children. The Model assesses nutrient and promotional requirements across different product categories and creates outputs which clearly demonstrate where product reformulation needs to happen and where marketing restrictions should be applied.
Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the NCD Office and WHO/Europe’s Regional Adviser for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, explains, “This Model provides Member States and relevant stakeholders with a tool to assess the ingredients of commercial baby foods, as well as how they are packaged and promoted. Each country that uses the Model can adapt it, and is taking an important step in achieving nutrition-related goals for this vulnerable age group.”
This European initiative is recognized globally and is instrumental in improving the diets of infants and young children across Europe and beyond. The NCD Office is happy to collaborate with other WHO regions in this area.
As part of its commitment to make nutrient and promotion profiling accessible, WHO is developing a toolkit and digital version of the Model. These assets support countries in assessing products and making policy recommendations that are critically important in halting the rise of diabetes and obesity within the NCD Global Monitoring Framework. Training workshops are also being delivered to Member States to facilitate the implementation of the model law.
This work directly contributes to the achievement of the obligations set out in World Health Assembly resolution WHA71.9 to:
• promote timely and adequate complementary feeding; and
• continue taking all necessary measures in the interest of public health to implement recommendations to end inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.