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An employee arranges cans of Illuma infant formula, produced by Nestlé, on a shelf at store in Shanghai. Photo: Bloomberg

Calls to tighten Hong Kong regulations in wake of Nestlé baby milk fiasco

Report from Dutch foundation finds Swiss food giant may have broken ethical marketing codes and mislead customers in Hong Kong and abroad

Baby formula

The Hong Kong government was urged on Friday to tighten oversight of how baby milk formula is advertised after an overseas advocacy group accused Nestlé of unethical marketing tactics and manipulating customers around the world.

The company’s supposedly misleading claims to Hong Kong consumers drew particular scrutiny in the report by Dutch organisation Changing Markets Foundation and Globalisation Monitor, which is based in the city.

The foundation said Nestlé touted its formula as “closest to”, “inspired by” and “following the example of” human breast milk in several markets.

A logo of the world’s leading food industry group, Nestlé, at the group's research centre in Vers-chez-les-Blanc above Lausanne. Photo: Agence France-Presse

The study, which analysed more than 70 Nestlé baby milk products in 40 countries, also found that the company was inconsistent in how it promoted the nutritional value of ingredients.

For example, formula sold in Hong Kong was promoted as free of sucrose “for baby’s good health”, while in South Africa, the company sold products that contained the sugar. It marketed some varieties in Hong Kong as healthier because they were free from vanilla flavouring, but other versions for sale elsewhere in the city contained the flavouring.

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“We have come to understand that companies manipulate consumers’ emotional responses to sell a variety of products,” said Nusa Urbancic, the foundation’s campaigns director. “But this behaviour is especially unethical when it comes to the health of vulnerable babies.

“If the science is clear that an ingredient is safe and beneficial for babies then such ingredients should be in all products. If an ingredient is not healthy, such as sucrose, then it should be in no products. Nestlé’s inconsistency on this point calls into serious question whether it is committed to science, as it professes to be.”

Nestlé’s inconsistency on this point calls into serious question whether it is committed to science, as it professes to be
Nusa Urbancic, Changing Markets Foundation

Making false advertising claims is illegal in Hong Kong, but the infant formula industry is asked to follow an extra level of marketing restraint. Under a code introduced by the Food and Health Bureau, manufacturers are asked to avoid promoting any product intended for children under the age of three. But the code is entirely voluntary.

Paediatrician Dr Patricia Ip Lai-sheun, vice chairwoman of Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association, said the local government should issue stronger and more effective regulations to crack down on misleading claims about infant formulas.

Nestlé defended the integrity of its marketing. “We market these products in a responsible way at all times, and the claims made on our products are based on sound scientific evidence,” a spokeswoman said.

The company believed that breast milk was the ideal source of nutrition for babies, she said. Nestlé also supported a recommendation by the World Health Organisation that mothers exclusively breastfeed newborns for six months followed by the introduction of complementary foods, along with sustained breastfeeding for up to two years and beyond, she said.

Infant formula was the only suitable breast milk substitute for infants who could not be breastfed as recognised by the WHO, she added.

We market these products in a responsible way at all times, and the claims made on our products are based on sound scientific evidence
Nestlé spokeswoman

Jannie Leung Hoi-ting, a member of the Hong Kong Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association said she had so far not received any complaints by local mothers concerning the claims of Nestlé.

Globalization Monitor’s Rena Lau said in a statement: “This report reveals infant milk companies make use of the lack of public scrutiny in Hong Kong, not only selling products with the highest price but also adding non-essential ingredients to their products. It is very irresponsible of Nestlé to fail to put the health of infants first.”

Hong Kong’s Customs and Excise Department said it was an offence to apply false trade descriptions to any goods. But cases should be judged “with reference to relevant facts and circumstances”.

The Hong Kong government is committed to protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding through a comprehensive strategy, with the code as an integral part of the strategy, a Department of Health spokesman said.

“Manufacturers or distributors of the products concerned are encouraged to make reference to the principle and objectives of the Hong Kong Code in formulating their marketing practices,” he added.

Nestlé is the global market leader for infant milk products with a market share of close to a quarter. It has been dogged by the advertising issue since a 1974 report sparked a worldwide boycott.

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In 1981, the WHO adopted a strict code of advertising banning the promotion of baby milk products as being in any way comparable to breast milk. Nestlé insists that it follows the code “as implemented by national governments”.

But the latest report found that it touted products in the US such as Gerber Good Start Gentle powder as “our closest to breast milk”, and sold its Beba Optipro 1 powder in Switzerland as “following the example of breast milk”.
Cans of S-26 infant formula, produced by Nestlé SA, are displayed for sale at a Babemax store in Shanghai. Photo: Bloomberg

Similar Nestlé products in Hong Kong and Spain were advertised as being “inspired by human milk”, and having “an identical structure” to breast milk.

Some academics, though, have highlighted the way that language used by companies to promote infant milk formulas can sometimes mislead consumers.

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Last year, Professor George Kent of the University of Hawaii wrote that describing a product as “closer to breast milk … is not the same as saying it is close to breast milk. New York is closer than New Jersey to Paris, but that does not mean New York is close to Paris.”

Breast milk is a “personalised” and continuously changing nutrition between mother and child that contains live substances – such as antibodies and immune-system related compounds – which cannot yet be replicated in a lab.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Nestlé marketing claims on formula deemed misleading