“Exploitative” formula milk marketing must come to a halt, WHO report flags
29 Apr 2022 --- The infant formula industry is using every trick in the book to gain access to pregnant women and mothers, using marketing techniques which should have long been prevented, a damning report by the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals.
“Women and families need unbiased information on infant feeding, but there is no way that governments and public health organizations can compete with industry just by providing counter messages,” Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, unit head of the food and nutrition action in health systems team at the WHO, tells NutritionInsight.
“The formula Industry spends US$3-5 billion a year on marketing and this has to be curtailed with strong legislation,” he adds.
According to the findings, formula milk companies are paying social media platforms and influencers to gain direct access to pregnant women and mothers. Companies utilize tools like apps, virtual support groups or baby clubs, promotions, competitions and advice forums or services.
Formula milk companies also buy or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers, the research notes. These tools are often “not recognizable as advertising,” the report notes.
Putting an end to the practice
Results from the study reveals that commercial content reaches three times more people than informative content without an advertising incentive, which may dissuade mothers from WHO’s recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding.
“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been terminated decades ago,” says Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the WHO nutrition and food safety department. “The fact that formula milk companies are now employing even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to drive up their sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”
Four million social media posts analyzed infant feeding on a commercial social listening platform. The posts generated 12 million likes and reached an audience of 2.47 billion people. The report also reveals that the companies analyzed reached out to an average of 220 million daily users and updated their feed around 90 times per day.
This is not the first time the WHO has revealed a “deeply troubling” marketing landscape across industry. While it highlighted unethical strategies, companies responded saying they adhere to the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. Similarly, a study arguing that formula milk trials have a high risk of bias ignited a debate about transparency in the industry.
The International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk substitutes was founded in 1981, meaning that technology use and the power of big data were unimaginable, the report remarks. The technology has brought on “powerfully persuasive, extremely cost-effective and often unrecognizable advertising.”
Even though the code restricts the marketing of breast milk substitutes, digital technologies were not included in the code when envisioned.
“Countries need stronger legislation, new monitoring technologies, and a renewed commitment to enforcement to stop practices in digital spaces. Marketing often occurs across national borders, making it difficult to enforce national laws, so transnational frameworks are urgently required,” he notes.
The WHO encourages countries to implement stricter packaging rules for infant formulas, reducing the risk of exposure to misleading information and graphics that may be influential.
“We will be developing clearer guidance on how to address digital marketing. The WHO is also assisting countries to enact, monitor and enforce national legislation that implements the Code of marketing of breast-milk substitutes,” Grummer-Strawn concludes.
The health-promoting effects of breast milk have long been researched, with companies seeking to mimic it with their products. Researchers have also revealed that breastfeeding provides better immunity than infant formula due to specific bacteria called Veillonella and Gemella, which are more abundant in the gut of breastfed babies.
“Globally, we estimate that 820,000 babies die annually due to inadequate breastfeeding. Children who were not breastfed are more likely to become obese. Breastfeeding also protects mothers from diabetes, obesity, and certain cancers later in life,” Grummer-Strawn notes.
“Breastfeeding is a baby’s best source of nutrition, bolstering their brain development with lifelong health and development benefits,” he adds.
By Beatrice Wihlander
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