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Breastfeeding advocates form consolidated action against formula companies

© UNICEF Philippines/2006/Alquinto
Patti Rundall talks about violations of formula milk companies to the milk code. "We call on people and the media around the world to act now."

13 November 2006, Makati City.  International advocacy groups and a new local coalition of breastfeeding support groups will begin to coordinate efforts to end unethical infant formula marketing in the Philippines. The latest visit of international breastfeeding advocates Ms. Patti Rundall and Ms. Elisabeth Sterken prompted local breastfeeding groups to create a consolidated response against formula milk companies and deceptive advertising that undermine breastfeeding and threaten infant lives.

Advocates’ Ms. Patti Rundall, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action United Kingdom and Ms. Elisabeth Sterken, Director of International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) North America lead a forum entitled Truth or Lies: An Examination of Babyfood Marketing Practices exposing marketing malpractices of babyfood companies and harmful contaminants such as Enterobacter sakazakii found in powdered milk formulas November 7. The forum was organized by Arugaan and People of the Philippines for Breastfeeding Coalition with support from UNICEF and IBFAN.

“Formula is so damaging that companies really need to lie about their products.  They create claims about the products and we have seen this DHA and ARA claiming to improve cognitive development of babies and eyesight. These are not proven to be beneficial to babies,” said Ms. Elisabeth Sterken during her presentation.  “Infant formula is not sterile. It intrinsically contains pathogen e. sakazakii that causes sepsis, meningitis and other deadly diseases.  WHO and FAO have issued a warning on these early as 2004.”

Participants from local breastfeeding groups were outraged after hearing the presentations of Sterken and Rundall.  “We feel that the milk companies have betrayed our trust.  When a TV ad tells us something we gave our trust to these companies. We feel violated,” says one participant. 

Arugaan and the People of the Philippines for Breastfeeding Coalition, a network of more than a hundred local non-government organizations supporting breastfeeding, formed a consolidated action against formula milk companies during the forum.  “We want to make companies accountable for the harmful effects of babyfood products that undermine the power of breastfeeding and food security in the Philippines.” We will mobilize simultaneous people’s action in the coming months such as law suits and a boycott on the most unethical babyfood companies,” says Ms. Ines Fernandez Executive Director of Arugaan.

Overseas, Baby Milk Action, an international breastfeeding advocacy network based in the United Kingdom, recently launched a worldwide signature campaign to support infant health advocates and lawmakers in the promotion and protection of breastfeeding in the Philippines after hearing of the pressures and practices undermining breastfeeding in the country.

“They think they can get away with it.  It is really important that we raise public awareness and get supporters to write to the government.  You need to watch the milk companies and ensure that they are doing the right things,” says Ms. Patti Rundall, Policy Director of Baby Milk Action United Kingdom during her visit to Manila days ago. 

“Despite giving interviews virtually non-stop since Tuesday very little has ended up in the print media in the Philippines so far. There is a real problem of advertisers putting pressure on newspapers. I’m really shocked that these companies that pretend to us they are socially responsible have the nerve to go into the Philippines where artificial feeding is dangerous. We have helped to protect laws in the past and we call on people and the media around the world to act now.”

The Philippine government is currently facing immense pressure from the US Chamber of Commerce as shown in the leaked letter exposed by international breastfeeding networks quoting US Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donahue on a letter dated August 11th warning President Gloria Arroyo of “the risk to the reputation of the Philippines as a stable and viable destination for investment” if she did not “re-examine regulatory decisions referring to marketing restrictions on milk formula companies.”  The Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations (RIRR) of the 1986 Executive Order 51, calling for very strict marketing regulations of formula milk advertising, signed by Department of Health officials last July 2006 remains ‘toothless’ after the Supreme Court overturned its decision to implement the RIRR on August 15th through issuance of a temporary restraining order in favor of the Pharmaceutical and Health Care Association of the Philippines (PHAP). PHAP represents US formula companies Abbott Ross, Mead Johnson, Wyeth and Gerber.

Breastfeeding supporters around the world are signing a petition of solidarity and sending letters of protest to babyfood companies opposing challenges to the implementation of the RIRR in the Philippines.

“We aim to shame babyfood companies in the media and before the public to encourage them to meet their obligations under the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly resolutions and to respect rights of the Philippines to implement these measures, stresses Mr. Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking coordinator of Baby Milk Action UK. 

Supporters adamantly reject marketing tactics that undermining breastfeeding in the Philippines.  “It disturbs me to see yet another example of outside interests including the American Chamber of Commerce and the local association of foreign-based manufacturers attempting- yet again- to undermine laws of a sovereign country.  I hope that the Philippine government will resist these attempts and show courage and leadership in protecting infant health by retaining and implementing the RIRR of the Milk Code of the Dept. of Health,” says Virginia Thorley of Australia, one of those who signed online petition at  http://www.babymilkaction.org/CEM/cemnov06.html.

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For further information or to arrange interviews, please contact:

Dale Rutstein
UNICEF Manila, 901 0177 or 0917 866 4969, drutstein@unicef.org
Alexis Rodrigo
UNICEF Manila, 901 0173 or 0917 858 9447, arodrigo@unicef.org

 
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