Stopping loopholes for advertising of formula milk

Every parent wants their child to have the best possible start in life. We all know that the nutrition that babies receive in their first months and years is crucial for their growth and development, and will affect them for the rest of their lives. For those parents who use formula milk there is an endless choice, which of course creates an anxiety to choose the very best for their child.

The good news is that infant formulas are very strictly regulated by European laws to ensure that no formula contains anything unsafe, and that every formula contains all the essential ingredients needed for a baby’s development. There is also a ban on advertising infant formulas, to ensure that parents do not feel pressured into buying a more expensive brand, or choosing formula milk over breastfeeding.

Whilst these are good laws, a big problem remains. So called ‘follow-on formulas’ are not subject to the same controls as infant formulas. Follow-on milks can be advertised, and many people will be familiar with such adverts on TV and in magazines. But the distinction between infant formula, which should be used from zero to six months, and follow-on formula, for 6 to 12 months, is not very clear. Research has shown that 60% of mothers in the UK think they have seen advertising for infant formula. Most worryingly, a majority of mothers using formula milk started their child on follow-on formula earlier than they should have done, probably due to the heavy advertising of the supposed benefits of follow-on formula. Clearly these products are a way for manufacturers to circumvent rules that are meant to protect parents from the advertising of infant formula.

Last year I unsuccessfully tried to stop a health claim being used on some brands of follow-on milk saying that the added chemical DHA improved babies’ eyesight. The scientific basis of the claim was not generally accepted by independent experts, and, in my view, if an ingredient is proven to be beneficial then it should be added to all formulas as standard, instead of being used as a marketing tool.

Top health professionals, including the World Health Organisation, think that follow-on formulas are actually unnecessary, and that from 6 months old children can get all the nutrition they need from home cooked meals and cows milk. It’s clear to me that if we allow follow-on formulas to exist as a category they should face the same restrictions that infant formulas do.

That’s why I was really disappointed that the public health committee of the European Parliament today voted against my amendments to the Food for Infants Directive calling for follow-on formulas to be treated in the same way as infant formulas. Although we were successful in stopping the use of images of babies in adverts for follow-on formulas, we need to go further. I hope that when the whole Parliament votes on it in April we can achieve a better result.

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