Cracking the Code

In 1994, the Church of England called for a hiatus in the slanging match between the manufacturers and IBFAN. The Church suspended its support for the boycott while it sought unbiased, independent research into baby formula marketing practices. 

To obtain that information, we joined in creating the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM), formed with 27 organizations including Christian Aid, OXFAM, Save the Children and the UK Committee for UNICEF. Now we have stark new evidence in the form of a report, Cracking the Code, which proves that 32 companies, including Gerber, Mead Johnson, Nestlé, Nutricia and Wyeth, have been routinely ignoring the Code. 

Cracking the Code reports on a study undertaken between August and October 1996 in Bangladesh, Poland, South Africa and Thailand. In each country, the study involved interviews with 800 pregnant women and new mothers and 120 health workers in 40 facilities. The results showed that, among other violations of the Code, the formula companies have been distributing marketing literature promoting formula over breastmilk and giving away formula to maternity hospitals and mothers—from 1 in 12 mothers surveyed in Poland to 1 in 4 in Thailand. 

Free samples, especially those handed out by health professionals, are a particularly insidious form of promotion. A mother can easily switch from breast to bottle, but from bottle to breast is another story. After being fed with free samples of formula even for just a few days, the baby, used to an artificial teat, is fussy about accepting the breast. While the baby has been drinking formula, the mother’s milk production has declined. 

Now the worried mother has a cranky and hungry baby on her hands, and she is convinced she must give up the breast and use formula for the duration. Rarely are such problems—and their solutions—explained to women when ‘gifts’ of baby formula are thrust into their hands. And when a doctor or nurse is providing the ‘gift’, it carries the health profession’s implicit stamp of approval. 

The industry has complained that the IGBM study is biased and unscientific. This is rubbish. Independent coordinators supervised the study in each country, and the many organizations that sponsored it would not have gone through this exercise without firm assurances that rigorous research protocols would be observed. 

The Church of England suspended its support of the boycott as an act of good faith while the study was undertaken. The industry’s criticism of the study adds up to this: The multinationals simply are not about to acknowledge their own unethical practices in countries that offer promising market potential. 

It is now clear to me that the only way to end these practices is by threatening the commercial interests that drive them. To concentrate its effectiveness, the consumer boycott has targeted one company: Nestlé. But that is not to suggest that the others are pure in their motives and actions—quite the contrary. They go about the same business, obscured in the shadows, while the light is shined on Nestlé. And if the IGBM had the resources to survey more countries, I have no doubt that we would find many more companies violating the Code. 

These violations are not innocent; they are wilful. The companies have a moral obligation to abide by the Code, but instead they have treated it like something they can ignore with impunity until they are caught. They bank on the fact that developing countries do not have the resources to police the companies. Cracking the Code was our response to this implied challenge, and I hope it puts the manufacturers on notice that those countries have allies in the effort to put babies before business.

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