We need milk law legislation to really protects mothers and babies

830,000 babies die every year because they weren’t even breast-fed for an hour

IT’S International Nestlé Free Week from Monday but that doesn’t matter if you’re going to Rochestown Park Hotel, Douglas, on Thursday to see Neven Maguire doing a cookery demonstration as part of the First 1,000 Days initiative because it’s sponsored by Danone.

Who are up to exactly the same tricks as Nestlé in their efforts to get mothers to feed babies infant formula instead of breastmilk.

The First 1,000 Days campaign is not to be confused with the UN’s “1,000 Days” initiative to get proper nutrition to hungry mothers and babies. Indeed, how could they be confused? Can’t you see the word “First” in the Danone project, a word which is missing from the UN initiative? You didn’t spot it?

Must get on to Danone and point out that unfortunate confusion. Except I think they might just be aware already of the confusion caused by their “First 1,000 Days” global charm offensive. In China the campaign has caused a big stink on social media since China Central TV reported that Danone’s Chinese brand Dumex had offered bribes to doctors and medical staff to promote its mother and baby products.

With its Chinese sales figures stagnant, Danone is even running a free draw for diamond studded brooches and iPads. It has also signed a deal with Chinese dairy giant Mengniu which may, as Reuters comments, “place it closer to the ears of China’s watchful regulators”.

Some would say businesses are honour-bound to maximise a return to their share-holders. But the real issue here is how the company has managed to muddy the waters to the extent that it pretends to be a legitimate source of nutritional information.

It is revolting that any company would seek to piggy-back on the UN’s 1,000 Days campaign in a world where 830,000 babies die every year because they weren’t even breast-fed for an hour. You can argue whether the UN project has any place in Ireland or not but it certainly doesn’t have any place in the Rochestown Park Hotel with Neven Maguire or in Tesco stores where First 1,000 Days “exclusive goodies” are being handed out or at First ,1000 Days Baby Fair to be held in Belfast next year.

No disrespect to Neven Maguire, but it is creepy to see a male chef standing in a kitchen doing cookery demonstrations in front of a circle of mothers as the centrepiece of the First 1,000 Days project. Other 1,000 Days ambassadors have included new mums — RTÉ presenter Maura Derrane who said her husband was doing all the night feeds and Xposé presenter Michelle Doherty, who said that when she came home from hospital she “didn’t even have a steriliser” and wondered was she a “bad parent”.

Danone make sure to say that breast-feeding is, and I quote, “a core part” of infant nutrition. But that’s a bit of an understatement considering breastmilk is all a baby should have for the first six months. And the First 1,000 Days campaign makes out that breast-feeding is a massive nutritional challenge to a mother — “You need to make sure you’re getting all the nutrition you need during this special time” — when in fact mothers have never been better fed and most produce perfect milk on a fraction of what we eat in the West.

Danone’s “Medical Director” Aileen Regan presides over the programme with dire warnings to parents as to how “crucial” early nutrition is to their infants’ well-being, even improving “school performance”. You would think it was rocket science to stick a boob in a baby’s mouth and then give it the family meals mushed up till the end of the year.

I know some families don’t eat meals. But they are not the families being addressed by this campaign and if they are, they shouldn’t be, because they can ill-afford the €700 a year it costs to feed a baby formula. They should be addressed by unbiased health professionals and social workers not the “baby nutrition experts” who answer questions live on the First 1,000 Days Facebook page.

The scariest thing of all about Danone’s initiative is that it has skilfully infiltrated aspects of the official health sector. Danone sponsored a seminar hosted by the Irish Nutrition and Dietetic Institute in the College of Physicians last year, which was addressed by Mairead Kiely, Senior Lecturer in nutrition at UCC, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at UCD, Michael Turner as well as the CEO of Barnardos, Fergus Finlay. Fine Gael TD, Mary Mitchell O’Connor also addressed the symposium and she is captured on youtube saying “I particularly like the way Danone supports and encourage mothers to breastfeed.”

O’Connor was on song again just last month at a First Thousand Days Medical Symposium at a Dublin hotel on “the impact of early nutrition on future health options.” Danone tweeted: “Mary Mitchell O’Connor has been a great supporter of our First 1,000 Days movement over the past year. Fantastic closing remarks.”

I need hardly add that there was radio coverage of the conference, well placed near Aptamil and Cow and Gate advertisements, both of which are Danone products. There was even a discussion on TV3 with a leading UK dietician and, you guessed it, Danone’s Aileen Regan, now described as “Danone Early Life nutrition expert”.

The College of General Practitioners listed the symposium on its website and attendance qualified a GP for study leave and credits. When I asked the college if they had any rules in place around sponsorship they assured me they had strict rules - including insisting the Medical Organiser ensures all content is scientifically valid and unbiased - but assured me the college’s accreditation of two hours of the symposium broke none of them.

The level of awareness of the ethics of sponsorship seems close to zero in this country and that’s why a group of concerned parents set up Ethical Sponsorship Ireland to address inappropriate sponsorship of childhood environments such as schools and creches. But infant formula companies use the most aggressive and insidious marketing ploys you’ll find anywhere, and that’s why the first Baby Milk Law Group (Ireland) has just been set up, aiming to tackle breaches of the UN Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk subsitutes and push for legislation which really protects mothers and babies.

Baby Milk Action (UK) has won many cases in England, including this year against advertisements for Cow and Gate “follow on” milk fortified with iron and calcium. These “follow on” or “growing up” milks, originally devised to get around restrictions on marketing to infants, are deemed “unnecessary products” by the World Health Assembly. First Steps Nutrition Trust in the UK has reported that they can even be harmful to kids.

Ironically Dr Mairead Kiely stated at the Danone conference that Irish mothers are “compliant” on good nutrition if they get “clear, unambiguous advice”.

So how come we have the lowest breast-feeding rate in the developed world? Could it be because of the lack of “clear, unambiguous” advice from the health sector under a Government in bed with formula companies?



Lifestyle

How to take an active interest in your children’s online lives

Is kindness key to good health?

When it’s the right time to say goodbye?

Tric Kearney: 'Internet shopping and I are finished'

More From The Irish Examiner