Philippines’ Department of Health (DOH) has announced that it will investigate the actions of 4 major milk formula companies, after The Guardian exposed their illegal and clandestine methods used to market their products to mothers.
The DOH has recently passed the responsibility to Food and Drug Authority to formally investigate and to hand out financial punishment.
In The Guardian report, representatives from Nestle, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth were described as a constant presence in hospitals in the Philippines, where only 34% of mothers exclusively breastfeed in the first 6 months of their child’ life. The representatives reportedly hand out ‘infant nutrition’ pamphlets to mothers, which appear to be medical advice but in fact recommend specific formula brands and sometimes have money-off coupons.
They were also found to be offering doctors, midwives and local health workers free gifts and sponsored trips paid for by milk formula companies, to win their loyalty. This is a clear violation of Philippine law. All 4 companies have rejected the allegations and denied any wrongdoing.
Dr Anthony Calibo, the National Programme Manager for infant and young feeding, and Division Chief for the children’s health division of the DOH said, “It has been a struggle for government to crack down on all of these illicit practices of the milk companies but we thought that things had changed a bit and improved.”
Calibo added that he will make sure FDA will look into the matter as they are the regulatory body with the power to implement sanctions such as fines. He admitted that due to a lack of resources, the DOH has struggled to regulate the activities of milk formula companies and gathering evidence of violations is equally tough.
Working with Save the Children, The Guardian compiled reports from doctors, nurses, midwives and mothers which demonstrated ways in which the milk formula companies were either breaking the law, or using loopholes, to promote milk formula to mothers. As a result, many women were found to be spending up to three-quarters of their income on infant formula for their babies, sometimes denying themselves food to afford it. Some were living without running water and electricity, causing problems when trying to sterilise bottles.
Nestle, Abbott, Wyeth and Mead Johnson were found to be offering doctors, midwives and other health workers meals, cinema and theatre tickets and gambling chips, as well as all-expenses-paid sponsorship for attendance at lavish medical conferences. This is a clear violation of Philippine law. All the 4 companies, however, denied any wrongdoings. Interestingly, Nestle and Mead Johnson defended funding conference trips for doctors, even though the DOH confirmed it was illegal in the Philippines. Nevertheless, all the 4 companies will investigate on these claims and they confirm their commitment to the ethical marketing of their products in compliance with the country’s regulations.
Calibo said the new findings reinforced the need for a change in approach in the Philippines to combat what he described as the “stubborn and cunning” tactics of the milk companies. Currently, the majority of violations are reported by mothers themselves, rather than the healthcare professionals being courted by the formula representatives.