Baby formula industry ‘aggressively’ targeting parents, violating global rules: WHO, UNICEF

A new study by the WHO and UNICEF warns that the milk formula industry is using aggressive marketing tactics to sway new parents to buy their products. (Credit: Pixabay)

Over half of parents and pregnant women have been exposed to unethical marketing tactics from breast-milk substitutes companies, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) revealed on Wednesday.

The study, which surveyed 8,500 parents and pregnant women, as well as 300 health workers across Bangladesh, China, Mexico, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, the United Kingdom and VietNam, found that the formula milk companies often use abusive techniques to sell their products, including “unregulated” and “invasive” online targeting and spreading misleading and unfounded messages around the benefits of infant formula. 

The authors also warned that many healthworkers were approached by these companies with promises of samples, gifts and research funding to get them to recommend their brand to new parents.

The WHO and UNICEF recommend that infants exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of their lives and continue to do so, along with ingesting solid foods, up until two years of age. Breastfeeding acts as the child’s first vaccine, protecting it from infections and malnutrition. It also reduces the risk of diabetes, obesity and some types of cancer for the mother, according to the organisations. However, only 44 per cent of babies under six months old are breastfed.

Meanwhile, the milk formula industry is booming. It is worth up to $55bn and spends roughly $5bn in marketing every year, according to The Conversation. The report found that their marketing strategies often violated the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981, which bans all forms of promotion of breast-milk substitutes.

“This report shows very clearly that formula milk marketing remains unacceptably pervasive, misleading and aggressive,” said Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO’s director-general.