Formula marketed as better than breastmilk in China

With the recent tainted formula scare in China I immediately became suspicious – why are so many Chinese using formula anyway? It is a poor country, surely they would be breastfeeding? Sure enough, just like in the West in the 40s and 50s, formula is being promoted in China as better than breastmilk.

The report concludes that an important reason for these statistics is aggressive advertising by infant formula companies. After hearing infant formula ads touting the product’s “nutritious matter beneficial to children’s brain development,” 57% of mothers were willing to buy formula.

According to the report, much of this advertising is illegal. Under Chinese consumer protection regulations, ads can’t claim or hint that a product is a replacement for breast milk. Nor are ads permitted to use images of breast feeding women and babies. Nonetheless, infant formula companies often flout these regulations and engage in other forms of “stealth” advertising and product placement, including promotional give-aways and sponsorship of health hot lines or baby feeding forums.

This is very worrying, for a number of reasons. We know very well now that breastmilk is far better than formula. The World Health Organisation recommends babies are exclusively breastfed till 6 months, then continue to be breastfed until at least 2 years, with no formula used at any stage. This knowledge is well established in Western medical circles now, and although some parents are forced to use formula for medical reasons, and others will choose to use formula, for example for convenience if the mother is returning to work, they at least have access to the best science.

The official Plunket recommendation in NZ is for babies to be “breastfed for at least the first 6 months”, which is far from the ideal WHO recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding as it allows topping up with formula, and this outdated practice appears to be commonly recommended by some Plunket nurses (Plunket probably doesn’t recommend it officially, but some nurses are still recommending this). However this is still a lot better than saying formula is better than breastmilk, as appears to be the case in China.

This is a serious concern for NZ, because dairy exports provide so much income to our country. Are our dairy exports being marketed honestly in China? Officially it is illegal for them not to be, but in practice, is this the case? It is illegal to contaminate milk, yet they do that too (and this isn’t the first instance, it happened in 2004 as well). This is a very serious issue for an agricultural nation such as ourselves.