Shopping infant formula code violators

By Elizabeth Harrop

14 March 2010

Supermarkets, including at least one chain in Christchurch New Zealand, which promote infant formula are breaching the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes 1981 (ICMBMS). When a complaint was made by a visiting customer (a midwife who knows of the above code), she was told “there’s nothing anyone can do to stop us”.

However, you can make a formal complaint to the supermarket, to government or via a lobby group such as IFANZ.   The New Zealand government, by allowing such practises to go unchecked, is breaching international human rights law because of its ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989 (CRC) which promotes child health.

However (as the supermarket has learned) the convention – and the code mentioned above – are legislatively weak and so there is really nowhere to go other than “please will you” or lobbying / public humiliation of both government and businesses at fault.

The ICMBMS applies to all World Health Organization (WHO) member states of which New Zealand is one. The code is a minimum requirement, so countries are expected to do everything in it and possibly more. It contains articles on the following – all relevant to supermarket marketing of infant formula.

Article 4: information and education must emphasise breastfeeding

Article 5: no promotion to the general public of formula or samples given. No promotions done at a retail level – including coupons, displays

Under article 11, countries should take action to implement the code, for example via national legislation. Monitoring is up to governments individually and collectively via WHO on an annual basis. But this is voluntary and therefore self-policing and weak. Non governmental agencies and manufacturers are to cooperate with government to make this happen.

If there is a code violation its up to the individual government to rectify it, so it is hard to enforce if there is a lack of will on the government’s part to be robust with formula manufacturers and retailers.

It is therefore left to organisations like IFANZ to use media awareness to embarrass violators.

The CRC gives legal weight under international human rights law (i.e. it is stronger than the code) of many of the provisions above. For example article 24(e) “To ensure that all segments of society … are supported in the use of basic knowledge of child health and nutrition, the advantages of breastfeeding …”

New Zealand ratified this in 1993 and has made no reservations against this article – in other words should be prepared to legally uphold it.

However, even though this convention – like all human rights conventions – bears the weight of international law, it is still a voluntary and therefore ultimately lacks rigour.

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A code watchers pocket file to carry with you when out shopping:

Convention on the Rights of the Child

Infant Feeding Association of New Zealand

International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes 1981

Liberty & Humanity