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Feeding Products for Babies and Children (Advertising and Promotion)

Volume 617: debated on Wednesday 16 November 2016

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to control advertising and promotion of feeding products for babies and children; to establish arrangements to set standards for the efficacy of products and to measure claims against those standards; to make provision about penalties for advertisers and promoters who do not meet the standards; and for connected purposes.

We all expect the food we consume to be safe. We would like to hope that the standard of that food is monitored and that the advertising that tries to encourage us to buy it is accurate; should that not be the case, we would hope that the companies involved would be punished for misleading us. We expect our health professionals to be knowledgeable, and we expect them to be able to give impartial advice on foods from a position of expertise. We expect parents to have access to information so that they can make informed choices about how they feed the most vulnerable and precious people in our society: babies and young children.

Unfortunately, that is not the case. The present means of regulating products intended for babies and children—the infant formula and follow-on formula regulations—has loopholes and is not enforced in any meaningful way. That is the reason why I have brought this ten-minute rule Bill to the House, and it is why I seek the support of hon. and right hon. Members today.

The Bill I wish to bring in would tighten controls on the advertising and promotion of infant and young child formula. Under the present regulations, the advertising of formula intended for babies under six months is not permitted, so formula manufacturers have instead focused their efforts on promoting follow-on milks. Such products are heavily promoted on TV and in the media with soft-focus visuals of cute babies. Looking at the products on a supermarket shelf, it is clear that they are branded in a similar way so that parents get the impression that a child will progress from one to the next. They are numbered from one through to three or four. The branding is very distinctive and attractive—golden, with shields, crowns and cute animals. This is a growing market, and competition is fierce.

Dr Nigel Rollins from the Department of Maternal, Newborn, Child & Adolescent Health at the World Health Organisation recently predicted that the market value of the formula industry would reach US $70.6 billion by 2019. The majority of growth in the sector comes from follow-on and toddler milks, but the truth is that those products are not necessary. They have emerged because of the tightening of regulations around formula intended for babies aged zero to six months. They are marketed on TV, in print and online as important for child development, but many agencies globally are concerned about their high sugar content, and young children will receive all the nutrients they require from a healthy, balanced diet. I am concerned that parents are not hearing that message and that there is an impact on family budgets as a result.

Infant formula milks are not cheap. The size of the containers is getting smaller while the cost is increasing. As a rough guide, the price of a tin of infant formula can range from £8.50 to £14. Ready-prepared milks are even more expensive, and using one of the brand leaders in the first week of life could cost a family more than £100. Certain heavily advertised niche brands can cost nearly £23 for 900 grams of powdered formula. For a baby in the first six months of life, one of those tins of formula might last around a week.

As hon. Members can imagine, the cost can have a significant impact on household budgets. If families do not have access to impartial information about the content and merits of infant and young child formula, they make the decision on which product to choose by the way in which formula is presented on the shelves and by the marketing produced by formula companies. They might well consider the most expensive formula to be the best. I do not believe that formula companies are providing good enough and transparent enough information to allow parents to make an informed decision. That is being left to small charities such as First Steps Nutrition Trust, which has excellent guides to infant formula on its website. We do not have any independent analysis to check whether the information provided by the companies about their products is accurate.

The Mintel baby food and drink report from April 2016 notes that one of the main factors determining parental choice of milk is “brand”. It is not well enough known that all formula milks have to be of a very similar composition to comply with the requirements set by the EU, and claims are made primarily for unnecessary ingredients. Most of the rest of the difference is simply in the label and the branding, which parents are paying for: companies spent about £23 for every baby born in the UK on marketing follow-on formula in 2015. Given the disproportionate prevalence of bottle feeding in less affluent areas, the poorest families in our society are losing out the most. The Government should act to protect their interests.

This is an area in which one might expect health professionals to be able to help. Unfortunately, their ability to do so is constantly undermined by formula companies and by the lack of support, funding and leadership from Government in protecting them via legislation. There is a significant loophole in the regulations, which means that all infant formulas, for use from birth, can be advertised

“in a scientific publication, or…for the purposes of trade prior to the retail stage, in a publication of which the intended readership is other than the general public”.

That includes adverts in professional medical and health journals that health professionals will read. Dr Helen Crawley of First Steps Nutrition Trust, who is doing a great deal of work in this area, recently published a report called “Scientific and Factual? A review of breastmilk substitute advertising to health professionals”, which analysed some of the claims made in advertising to healthcare professionals. Many of the headline health claims made cannot be substantiated. The sources they cite are not in line with health policy, graphs set out to mislead and the adverts may fail to meet the Government’s requirement for such claims to be supported by peer-reviewed work. Even more frustratingly, the adverts cannot be challenged, as they could be in any other publication, by taking the matter to the Advertising Standards Authority, and that is just not fair. The intent of these adverts is to influence health professionals, who are the first line of support to families, but families need proper, independent information. The Bill would aim to tighten up this loophole and protect the integrity of health professionals from misleading claims.

The Bill proposes arrangements for controlling claims. Claims in adverts are challenged successfully and regularly by organisations such as Baby Milk Action. At present, claims can be made by formula companies for ingredients that are not necessary. For example, there is a global trend at the moment to add probiotics to formula, and for many years companies in this country have made claims about prebiotics in formula, which scientific authorities say have no benefit. There may also be issues with the degrading of formula composition over time, but we just do not have any information about that. Formulas can sit on the shelf for years, and we do not know what the impact of that is. There is no independent verification of formula composition or of claims. Furthermore, the Government take no formal national role in testing and monitoring all infant formulas to ensure that the products are safe and meet compositional regulations. I think parents would be quite shocked to find out that this is the case. These products are chosen with care to give to our youngest citizens in this country, and I propose that the Government give serious consideration to making improvements in this area.

Lastly, I wish to turn to penalties. There have been no prosecutions under the current regulations since 2003, despite numerous flagrant breaches. Under the present regulations, contravention or failure to comply is an offence liable, on summary conviction, to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale, which is a fine of up to £5,000. Given the size and scale of the companies and of the industry, that level of fine barely registers. We should contrast this with Romania, which has recently signalled its intent to bring in a new law banning the promotion of infant formula products for children up to the age of two. Breaching the rules will constitute a criminal offence, with fines of up to 100,000 Romanian new leu, the equivalent of about £19,000. This would be a step in the right direction and would put down a marker to formula companies that failure to comply is not going to lead to a mere slap on the wrists.

The World Health Assembly resolution adopted in May 2016 clarified that all infant milks marketed as a breastmilk substitute in the first three years of life should be covered by the WHO code, the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes, including follow-on formula, toddler milks and other milks. The House has an opportunity today to make progress on this important public health recommendation.

I am grateful to colleagues from both sides of the House who have put their names to this Bill for their support. I would be glad to have the opportunity to consider other aspects of this issue should the House give me leave to bring in the Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Alison Thewliss, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Mrs Flick Drummond, Dr Philippa Whitford, Jim Shannon, Caroline Lucas, Patrick Grady, Julie Elliott, Mark Durkan and Kirsty Blackman present the Bill.

Alison Thewliss accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 February 2017, and to be printed (Bill 95).