Non-profits and two autonomous state agencies authorised to lodge complaints regarding violations. Will that be enough to bring violators to book?
The Indian government has designated four agencies to monitor violations relating to production and sale of substitute food for infants in India. These comprise non-profits, Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) and Association of Consumer Action on Safety and Health (ACASH), as well as autonomous government bodies, Indian Council for Child Welfare (ICCW) and Central Social Welfare Board (CSWB). These organisations have now been authorized to lodge a complaints against any private company that violates the law regulating production, promotion and sale of baby food.
Managing director of BPNI, Arun Gupta, says that it is not enough to designate the four agencies for monitoring of violations. NGOs have been given the power only to lodge complaints in court, which is a lengthy process and consumes a lot of time, he points out. “If a government agency is involved, it will have the power to take action, too. ICCW and CSWB do not pay much attention to the issue," he says, while adding, “the government should chalk out a proper mechanism to monitor all developments in the production and sale of substitute foods.”
J P Dadhich from International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN)-Asia agreed with Gupta and says the country urgently requires an implementation agency. He says the existing law has adequate preventions to check violations. According to Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods (Regulation of Production, Supply and Distribution) Act 1992, also called the IMS Act, the government can nominate a class one officer at district level with a medical background to monitor all developments on the subject and will be responsible for implementation of existing laws. Dadhich points out that Haryana was the only state that had implemented the Act, and had appointed all civil surgeons of the district hospital for this purpose.
Violations go unchecked
The IMS Act bans all kinds of promotion of products such as baby foods and feeding bottles for infants of 0-2 years of age, including advertisements, inducements on sales, pecuniary benefits to doctors or their associations including sponsorship, commission to salesmen, and it prescribes labelling requirements. However, in the absence of monitoring, 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 belies the journal’s claims.
At a press meeting on July 30, ahead of World Breastfeeding Week, Gupta pointed out that the advertisement used a logo of the World Health Organization (WHO). This gives the 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 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 BPNI in 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,” says Dadhich.
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