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Philippines: UN expert blasts milk industry for seeking profit at cost of infant health

Philippines: UN expert blasts milk industry for seeking profit at cost of infant health

An independent United Nations rights expert today denounced a campaign by Filipino milk companies to promote breast-milk substitutes for manipulating UN data to protect their huge profits regardless of the interest of a country where 16,000 children under 5 died in 2003 from improper feeding practices including infant formula.

UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food Jean Ziegler also voiced disappointment at “the irresponsible and unethical behaviour of some medical practitioners and organizations, which have lent themselves to support these companies’ selfish interest.”

In a statement issued in Geneva, Mr. Ziegler charged that the current media campaign supporting substitutes, organized by the Pharmaceutical and Healthcare Association of the Philippines (PHAP), manipulated data emanating from UN specialized agencies such as the World Health Organization (WHO) and UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) as well as the Filipino Department of Health.

“The aggressive marketing practices by milk companies contribute to misleading the public by claiming that breastfeeding can not be done by a majority of women and that their products raise healthy, smart and happy babies,” he said.

WHO promotes breastfeeding as “an unequalled way of providing ideal food” for the healthy growth and development of infants, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months being “the optimal way.” Thereafter infants should receive complementary foods with continued breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond. UNICEF and WHO also warn of the dangers of contaminated water being used with infant formula.

Last July, after consultation with industry, community groups, UNICEF and WHO, the Filipino Health Department introduced a Milk Code in favour of breastfeeding, including a ban on advertising and promoting substitutes for children up to two years old, with an absolute ban on false health and nutritional claims.

But, represented by PHAP, the milk companies appealed to the Supreme Court arguing that the new regulations constituted a restraint on freedom of trade. As a result, the Court granted a temporary restraining order that is still in effect.

“The Special Rapporteur reiterates his support to the Government's stand in relation to the regulation to implement the Milk Code and counts on the wisdom of the Filipinos and international organizations to oppose the manipulative and deceptive tactics of milk companies who are guided by their interests and profits,” today’s statement said.

“He urges the companies to acknowledge their social corporate responsibility and to take all necessary measures to review their marketing practices related to breast milk substitutes. The Special Rapporteur also appeals to medical practitioners to abide by the ethical rules required by their profession,” it concluded.

Special Rapporteurs are unpaid experts serving in an independent personal capacity who report to the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council.