In the UK, MP Alison Thewliss is calling for tighter regulations around formula milks for babies and children. She is asking the government to make changes to current legislation by establishing a regulatory body responsible for independently monitoring the content and safety of formula milk, whilst also ensuring that any advertising is accurate and within the law.
But why do we need such changes? Don't these regulations already exist? Isn't this just added bureaucracy? Is this about preventing families from accessing formula milk?
No... no... and most definitely not. In fact it is the very opposite.
What this bill is seeking to do is to introduce a source of fair and accurate information about formula milks, outside of those who are trying to sell a product. It aims to reduce its cost, by preventing false claims and reducing advertising charges. Overall it plans to hold manufacturers accountable for their claims.
In the UK there is no statutory body who monitor the formula milk industry. This means that there is no requirement for the product to be independently tested for safety, content or efficacy. Manufacturers do research their product but generally for their benefit, with no requirement for them to publish negative results. And this is research that needs to be done. For example, no independent body has tested the shelf life of formula ingredients.
Consumers - families - deserve to have this information. Babies get their sole source of nutrition from milk. They deserve the best possible products and parents deserve the best possible information about what is in them. The bill seeks to improve this by setting standards for their efficacy and safety. If a claim is independently proven, brilliant. If not, the bill will prevent false claims (and associated price increases) being made.
The bill is NOT about restricting formula sales, but instead providing parents who use formula with better information about its content. If parents wish to buy a car they can refer to independent comparisons of products on the market but the same information does not exist for feeding their babies. Charities such as First Steps Nutrition have sourced this information and provide an excellent website for parents and professionals. However the health of infants should not be left to a voluntary organization.
The lack of regulation means that formula companies can justify price hikes by making inaccurate claims. Cost is already a considerable issue for families. A tin of infant formula can range from around £8 - £14 and will last around 5 days. It is logical to think that for the same weight, a £14 tin of formula is superior in content to an £8 tin of formula. However, in truth there is very little difference in content of the lowest and highest priced formulas. All formulas have to include certain ingredients under European regulations. Yet despite the powder used in Aptamil and Cow and Gate being the same, Aptamil costs around £2 more.
Others add unnecessary ingredients with no proven benefit, that are marketed as providing an important, unique element. Take prebiotics for example. There is no evidence to show these have a benefit to babies and the European Food Standards Agency considers them an 'unnecessary ingredient' yet they are still included, and the price raised - over and above what the inclusion costs.
Similarly, claims that 'comfort milk' reduces colic and constipation are recognised by the NHS as simply untrue, yet manufacturers continue to claim this and hence these products cost more. Manufactures are playing on natural parental desire to have the best for their baby, and at the moment they are getting away with it.
The lack of a statutory body means that it is currently easy for industry to get away with this as there is no agency to challenge them. Organisations such as Baby Milk Action do a fantastic job in challenging inaccurate or unlawful claims, but again, there should be a statutory body who has this role. Families deserve proper, unbiased, independent information about the content and claims of these milks.
Ultimately the bill will ensure that parents can access the information they need, that companies will not be allowed to make misleading claims and importantly that pricing of formula milks will be fair. It will enable parents more control, choice and power in making decisions for their baby.
This is not about the choice to breast or formula feed, but the information that is available to parents if they choose or need to use formula milk. It is vital that our future generations health is put in the hands of a statutory independent body rather than those who seek to make money from it.