“Plus we sell fair trade coffee!”: Say No to WHO Code Offset Attempts


[all images courtesy of promom.org. Click for larger versions.]

There’s been a bit of discussion about the traps about whether carbon trading offset schemes are of any real use, or whether they have the end result of not-so-covertly encouraging resource profligacy. Wasteful? Buy offset. Can’t be bothered? Pick up an offset, salve your conscience.

OK, that’s an arguable stance. But the World Health Organisation Code on the Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, the real subject of this post, is non-negotiable. You don’t get offsets, you don’t get a trading scheme, you don’t get to wheedle and cadge Code goodwill while breaching it. A violation is a violation. You break the Code, then you’re a Codebreaker, no matter how many puppies you adopt, no matter how much slave-free chocolate you sell, no matter how many times you emptily repeat the “breast is best” mantra.

I and others have had this conversation over and over and over again. And I’m sick of it.

The Code was adopted by the World Health Organisation in 1981 as a minimum requirement to protect infant health. The Code requires that bottles, teats, and breastmilk substitutes (including baby food, bottled drinks and teas as well as formula) may not be marketed or promoted in ways that undermine breastfeeding.

Australia is a Code signatory, but fails to implement the Code in legislation, or enforce it in any way. There is a toothless, partial, voluntary agreement, the MAIF agreement, that in practice seems to achieve nothing useful. To the best of my knowledge, every single brand of formula and feeding bottle in Australia is owned by a Codebreaking company.


Examples of Code violations

Examples of Code violations are everywhere. You can’t go to a “baby” website without tripping over them. The most well-known violations are by Nestle, and are the subject of a long-standing international boycott. But pushing formula on the mothers of newborns in developing countries, while utterly reprehensible, is not the full story. There are the smaller-scale violations that go on in industrialised countries also – language and images idealising and normalising artificial feeding and bottle feeding, inappropriate labelling, promotions and specials, direct advertising to pregnant woman and mothers. Most recently, I have noticed “organic”, “natural”, and “breastfeeding-supportive” companies getting in on the act. These are the ones who I have seen trying to invoke an imaginary offset scheme so that they can keep on suckling on the poisoned teat of the artificial feeding profit machine. Violating marketing of “organic” formula has found its way onto the unlikeliest websites, and oh boy do the owners pout and whine when the breaches are pointed out.

A few examples:

The Giant Iconic Bottle appears in ads for glass feeding bottles, capitalising on (not unfounded) parental fears of plastic by-product contamination, complete with idealising and normalising language like “feels wonderful” and “safe and clean”.

Bellamy’s markets their Organic Infant Formula as “Step 1- from Birth”, claiming it provides “the nourishment a baby needs from birth.”, and claiming “Organic infant formulas are a suitable alternative to giving baby the best possible start in life.” Organic Feast trumpets Holle formula as “good tasting” and “easily digestible”. Organic Supermarket claims “It includes everything that a baby needs for the first 6 months of its life, and has been formulated to closely resemble the protein found in breast milk.”

Babynat gets in on the formula-promotions act at Organic Solutions, with claims that it “will provide all the nutrition essential to the healthy development and sustained growth of your baby.”

Baby foods advertised as being appropriate under the age of six months are a clear violation. Violators include Holle Organic Baby Food, also sold as suitable for 4 months of age onward at Organic Works and here and here. Babynat cereal is sold as suitable for four months of age at Organic Solutions, Mary’s Organics, and Organic Oz. Heinz labels a number of its Organic products as suitable for 4-6 months.

Holle even promotes an “Organic Baby Tea” as suitable from two WEEKS of age.

The Adiri “breastbottle nurser” is one of the worst violators in the bottle world. Natural From Birth offers an example of some of their normalising and idealising language: “designed to imitate mum’s breast as closely as possible”, “the portion size and flow rate of a natural breast to simulate breastfeeding”, “an excellent investment in your infant’s well being”, “You can simulate let-down”, “soft, comforting and secure”, “soft, snuggly and comforting”. Just For Bubs gets in on the act, adding “provides the warmth and feel babies crave at feeding time”; and No Fuss Feeding actually labels this bottle a “Natural Nurser”, with its “ultra-soft breast-like design”.

Dr Brown’s, a newcomer on the Australian scene, made it clear from the start that the Code was none of their affair, with ads all over the parenting forums – including breastfeeding subforums, and subforums aimed directly at pregnant women. Their website bugles: “Dr Brown’s Natural Flow Baby Bottle: A complete feeding system for happier babies.” It goes on with the following little nuggets: “actually helps promote good health in babies”, “helps to reduce feeding problems like colic, spit-up, burping and wind”, “as close to breastfeeding as your baby can get”, “health benefits”, and “mimics breastfeeding”. It is clear from their testimonials page that they are handing out free samples, yet another violation category. Even the sites that sell Dr Brown’s products without all the guff are directly breaching the Code just by having the product image there, as you can see from these pages at the Organic Trading Co and Natural From Birth, since violating claims are clearly visible on the packaging – “Natural Flow” and “Reduces Colic”.

Avent are well known to Codewatchers as regular breachers (including faked ad images), and Evenflo have recently vowed to clean up their filthy act – but whether they do or not remains to be seen. Even Medela, long a supporter of breastfeeding and breast pump research, has been recently marketing their bottles as a stand-alone product labelled a “complete feeding system”.

Food and bottle companies aren’t the only violators. Any formula, bottle, or artificial feeding promotion is a violation. Health care facilities can be huge violators, as are other companies. ING Direct [cached link, it won’t last] this week offered a “Feed Your Finances” free-groceries promotion at Gateway IGA supermarket. The Essential Baby forums were abuzz with talk of grabbing as much free formula as possible, and one member said that a “baby company representative” was there talking with a Today Tonight film crew filming the empty formula shelves. I didn’t catch the show – no TV reception here yet! – but if you did, do comment to tell us what footage was shown.


Excuses, excuses

As I mentioned, I’ve only laid a few complaints so far, but I’m already heartily sick of the excuses. The claims to support “good” lifestyles in other ways, (“green”/”natural” products, politically, etc), the outright denial of Code violations, whines that their other forms of breastfeeding support or work conditions or political activism should excuse their breaches, dismissals with “it’s all semantics”, claims to be offering a less-bad “solution-focussed” choice that people otherwise would be unable to access – none of these excuse or mitigate Code violations. And it all comes with an undercurrent of “You can’t make me!”

Baroquestar pithily paraphrases the weaselling: “But we’re NICE violators! We promote HAPPY artificial milk! Plus we sell fair trade coffee!”

Traders know damn well that Australian Code legislation is non-existent. All we have is consumer action. Write letters. Lay MAIF complaints (better than nothing). Lobby your local MP for real Code action. Boycott where appropriate, and let people know why.

Fixing the problem

And if you’re a trader? Here’s my take on what to do if you stuff up. It’s really pretty simple. Yet I’ve not had a single response that actually does one of these items yet, let alone all of them. When I do, you can bet I’ll be shouting that company’s praises from the rooftops.

  1. Apologise. For real. No fake passive-voice “we’re sorry this happened” and “mistakes were made” fauxpologies.
  2. Stop making excuses.
  3. Stop mucking around. Don’t skirt the edges of the Code and try to hide in the loopholes and claim that it doesn’t reeeeally apply to you, on account of you’re a super special person and all.
  4. Fix it. Educate yourself, consider making a public apology, and commit to complete Code compliance in both letter and spirit.


Final notes

Some people ask – “But if these products aren’t advertised like this on websites, how ever will people know they exist or be able to buy them? Y’know, if they really need them?” I’m kinda surprised people are actually that stupid, but hey, whatever. I doubt the population of Australia is at sudden risk of complete formula and bottle amnesia, and the products are plastered all over the shelves of every supermarket and pharmacy out there. But if you are a web store only, take a leaf out of the website of Kombu WholeFoods. One line naming the product and size, another naming the price, and you’re done. No images, no language of promotion. Simple, isn’t it?

One last bit of kudos: to Nature’s Cradle, for belatedly pulling their bottle and formula products, after a bit of resistance. You can catch their previous section here at the Google cache, for a while at least. More kudos coming when they front up, apologise, and publicly commit to the Code.

Categories: health

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