As World Breastfeeding Week kicked off on August 1, health activists have drawn public attention to the unlawful tactics adopted by manufacturers of infant food to promote their products. Though an Act has been in place since 1992 to check promotion of infant food and milk substitutes for children under two, activists say it remains a paper tiger in the absence of proper implementing agency.
Soon after enacting the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act of 1992, also known as IMS Act, the government authorised three NGOs and one semi-government organisation to monitor if baby food manufacturers are abiding by the law. These agencies—Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), Association of Consumer Action on Safety and Health (ACASH), Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) and Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB)—were authorised to lodge complaints with the court in case of violation of regulations. But this mechanism seems to have had little effect.
Of the four agencies, two—ICCW and CSWB—have never brought any violator to book so far, says Arun Gupta, managing director of BPNI. Besides, the NGOs are authorised only to lodge complaints. Instead, if a government agency had been involved, it would have had the power to take action too. The government should take the responsibility of implementing the law, Gupta says.
J P Dadhich of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN)-Asia agrees with Gupta and says the country urgently needs a proper implementing agency. According to the IMS Act, the government can nominate class one officers with medical background at district levels to implement the law and monitor companies producing and selling baby food. So far, Haryana is the only state which has given effect to this provision. The state has authorised all civil surgeons of the district hospital to implement the law.
Violations go unchecked
The IMS Act bans all kinds of promotion of products such as baby foods and feeding bottles for babies under two, including advertisements, inducements on sales, pecuniary benefits to doctors or their associations, such as sponsorship, commissions to salespersons. The Act also and prescribes labelling requirements. However, in the absence of a proper monitoring mechanism, the provisions of the Act are frequently violated.
A recent example of such violation is the advertisement promoting a baby cereal that was published in Indian Journal of Pediatrics in July this year. The journal claims that it presents updated information on child health for paediatricians in India and provides a vehicle for publishing research carried out in India. But the publication of such an advertisement, which violates the provisions of the IMS Act, belies the journal’s claims.
At a press meeting on July 31, ahead of the World Breastfeeding Week, Gupta, pointed out that the advertisement even used a logo of WHO. This gives a false impression that the product has been endorsed by the world body. BPNI said it will send legal notice to the journal.
Nestle, Heinz among major violators
Gupta also pointed out that websites, too, are selling these baby products but are rarely monitored. In the statement, BPNI pointed out that several infant feeding bottle manufacturers such as Pigeon, Farlin, Winnie-the-Pooh, Morrison, Baby Dreams and Mee Mee have been selling feeding bottles and cereal foods at a discount on e-marketing websites in clear violation of the IMS Act. The baby food giants Heinz, Nestle and Abbott are also guilty of violations of the IMS Act, misleading mothers and undermining the importance of breastfeeding and natural family foods, stated the statement.
Putting profits before children’s health, the company Heinz, for instance is encouraging mothers to feed their children its oat and apple cereal food at 4+ months, according to the label on the container and information on various websites. The company also offers free gifts, discounts and even loyalty scheme to mothers who use the website. Such promotion is banned under the law.
Nestle uses health claims to promote its baby foods Nan 1 and Lactogen 1 through various websites and has tied the sale of its product Cerelac Stage 2 Wheat Orange with baby detergents. The Nestle Nutrition Institute is also continuing to organise doctors’ meetings despite objections from the Indian government.
“Misleading mothers should be considered a zero tolerance offence in the interest of children’s health and survival and Government of India should ensure that such violations end sooner,” said Dadhich.
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