A question of ethics – or not really where formula is concerned

373442605_2834769b0e_zI am very lucky. I was born into a family in a developed country. I am educated, I am independent and, as a result of all these things, I am not the target audience for any of the companies who market breast milk substitutes (infant formula). They ignore me, they know that I am impervious to their messages; I’ll buy whatever brand of formula I like and I won’t join their ‘clubs’ because I hate organised fun. I know that terms like ‘Pronutra’, ‘Combiotic’ and ‘Gold’ mean cock all. Infant formula is infant formula is infant formula. The ingredients are regulated in England by the Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula regulations (2007) the added extras are pretty much a mystery to me but I muddle through.    

Don’t be fooled, even though it is a highly regulated industry in this country the makers and marketers of infant formulas push their luck and the boundaries of right and wrong all the time. The Baby Feeding Law Group and Baby Milk Action are two UK based charities whose sole purpose is to monitor the activities of the formula companies and lobby the government to continue efforts to strengthen the law around the manufacture and marketing of baby food. From a brief rummage through both their websites it would seem this is a full time job.

Elsewhere in the world the marketing of infant formula is still a very shady business one that is battled gallantly by the members of the International Baby Food Action Network(IBFAN). The main protagonist seems to be the ever delightful Nestlé but I think, in truth they are all at it. Indeed it is still such a pressing issue that a film made by Oscar-winning director Danis Tanovic has just had it’s premiere at the Toronto World Film Festival. Tigers is a film by based on the true story of a former Nestlé baby milk salesman who took on the industry with the help of IBFAN when he realised that babies are dying as a result of his work pressuring doctors to promote formula. It’s the same old horrible story, mothers, particularly in areas where literacy is poor, can be led to believe that formula is better for their babies than breastmilk. Added to that are problems with access to clean water to make up the formula, the ability to read the dilution advice on the pack and the high cost of the product. Cost often results in mothers on low incomes being forced to dilute it far more than is recommended in order to make it affordable. In short, it’s despicable.

Now I guess I am like most people I have an ideological relationship with everything local and sustainable but an almost unavoidable economic relationship with the big brands, the chains and the mass produced. But, and this is a big but, I do have a choice. If I don’t want to buy clothes from a high street chain who I know exploits workers in a sweatshop in a far flung land then I don’t have to; if I want to buy apples that have been grown and picked in the UK instead of flown umpteen thousand miles from South Africa I can. Likewise, from coffee to diamonds I can go fair trade whenever the hell I like (I buy more coffee than I do diamonds, admittedly) but when I buy infant formula I am complicit in contributing to the profits of some of the least ethical companies ever to grace this planet, and I have absolutely no choice in the matter.

It is perhaps some consolation that Nestle do not currently offer a brand of infant formula to the British market so that conundrum is an easy one to avoid. But it’s probably not fair to single them out, international boycott or not they are just the most aggressive and overt in their operations they are not alone – Wyeth, Group Danone, Hero, HiPP, HJ Heinz may or may not be familiar names to you but between them they own pretty much all the brands of infant formula and food on the shelves of our supermarkets.

Ethical Consumerhave produced a Baby Food and Milk research report that sets out the ethical rating for 8 brands available in the UK. It is an incredibly detailed piece of research which scores each brand/company against a set of criteria which cover environmental responsibility, animal rights, human resources, politics and sustainability. For instance did you know that the company that owns Heinz has shares in BAe Systems? Or that the use of palm oil proliferates throughout the manufacture of most infant formula and baby food. Some of the criteria used I feel take things to the nth degree and go a bit far but overall it is a fascinating read.

In terms of infant formula the brands and HiPP and Babynat came out best overall scoring 11 and 12 out of 20 respectively whereas SMA scored 1. That’s one hell of a difference. If only there was an easy way to find out this kind of stuff before you start buying into this multi-million pound industry….but as we all know, no one likes to mention the ‘F’ word because if we don’t talk about it then perhaps it’ll just disappear and we’ll all stop using…..yep, that’s how it works I’m sure.  

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