After Nestlé, Aptamil manufacturer Danone is now hit by breast milk scandal

Danone accused of misleading mothers and misrepresenting UN

The multi-national food giant Danone has been accused of misleading mothers with a marketing campaign that warned they might not be providing enough breast milk to their babies. The company suggested mothers use its powdered baby milk to make up any shortfall.

An investigation by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism for The Independent found that Danone has been marketing its formula milk product Aptamil in Turkey by suggesting mothers with six-month old babies might not be providing enough of their own milk to meet their children’s needs. The episode has echoes of the baby milk controversies of the 1970s, which led to the international boycott of Nestlé, and illustrates the importance of emerging markets to Western multinationals. The campaign boosted infant formula sales in Turkey by at least 15 per cent and may have led to mothers moving their infants on to formula unnecessarily.

Danone says it based its advice on WHO guidance, and claims that both the WHO and the UN agency Unicef endorsed the campaign. But the WHO has demanded that Danone stop using its name and logo while Unicef has denied endorsing the company’s actions.

“Danone’s campaign is misleading,” said Dr Colin Michie, chairman of the British Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s nutrition committee. “There is not enough evidence to support its approach.” He added: “Mothers who follow Danone’s advice could end up moving their babies on to formula milk unnecessarily.”

Danone insisted that the campaign was aimed at discouraging “inappropriate” substitutions for milk such as rice flour, rather than “competing with breast milk”.

“Turkish Unicef and the WHO, together with other partners (the Ministry of Health, TV stations, supermarkets, Paediatric Association) supported this campaign, with the WHO allowing its logo to be used on printed materials,” it told the Bureau. The campaign had increased mothers’ estimation of the amount of breast milk fed to their babies by 63 per cent, it added.

Danone – best known in the UK for Actimel and Activia and Cow & Gate formula milk – began its Turkish marketing campaign in 2010.

The company identified the infant nutrition market in Turkey – with a population of 73 million, a relatively high birth rate and salaries on the rise – as one with major potential. But traditionally Turkey had high rates of breastfeeding – and no tradition of using formula milk.

In 2009 Numil, Danone’s baby nutrition arm in Turkey, enlisted 577 paediatricians to measure the breast-milk production of mothers of children aged six months. The doctors used breast pumps  or weighed the babies before and after feeding to get their results.

They found the mothers were producing an average of 290ml per day, although the findings have not been peer reviewed. The company then attempted to calculate a figure for the amount of breast milk a mother should be providing their child.

Numil took a WHO bulletin, which referred to an independent research paper on the energy children need to get from complementary food after six months of age. The paper was not designed to prove how much breast milk a child needs, and the resulting figure is not recognised as a recommendation for a breastfeeding child by international authorities.

Danone then launched a marketing campaign to promote the 500ml figure – which it inaccurately claimed was a WHO recommendation – with the slogan, “Half a litre every day”.

The message was promoted on TV, online and in supermarkets. One television ad stated: “Your baby needs at least 500ml milk per day. If your breast milk is not enough, give Aptamil formula to support your baby’s immune system.”

Supplementing with formula can reduce breast-milk flow. Unicef says there are several ways mothers can increase their breast-milk supply, such as expressing milk between feeds.

At the same time, Danone publicised an online test it had developed so mothers could check if they were providing 500ml. The test asks mothers questions about the frequency and duration of breastfeeding. Thousands of women have filled it in – and according to Danone, most have so far been given the result that they are not providing 500ml. The advice to those who are deemed to be providing less than 500ml is to use formula.

But experts have questioned both the 500ml figure and recommending it to parents. Dr Helen Crawley, director of First Steps Nutrition Trust, said estimates of how much milk meets infant requirements are needed in case a child has to be fed with expressed breast milk or formula.

“This is not the same as making a recommendation to mothers about volumes of breast milk,” she said. “The relatively high exclusive breastfeeding rates in Turkey may be undermined by any campaign which suggests a volume that may sound unachievable.”

Dr Gonca Yilmaz, director of one of the biggest paediatric units in Turkey, also condemned the campaign. “The health benefits of breast milk are enormous and mothers must not be pressured into buying formula based on inaccurate advice,” she said.

Both the WHO and Unicef have denied endorsing the campaign. The WHO said Danone did not have permission to use its logo and has written to the company asking it to remove its name within 14 days.

Dr Ayman Abulaban, the Unicef representative for Turkey, has also written to the company. “The Unicef Turkey office has not endorsed this campaign,” he wrote. “We kindly ask you to remove the Unicef name from your campaign materials.”

The Turkish Ministry of Health was not available for comment, but in a statement to Danone it said: “We are pleased that Numil is supporting the ministry in the promotion of correct infant feeding patterns, to encourage and increase breastfeeding rates as well as reduce inappropriate feeding.”

Sour milk: The Neslé scandal

Boycotts of Nestlé breast milk substitutes spread from Minneapolis to Europe in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were triggered by the Swiss firm’s alleged “aggressive marketing” of instant formula in the Third World.

Campaigners claimed the products led to the suffering and deaths of children because parents mixed the powder with water that was often contaminated.

In 1981, the World Health Organisation approved the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, to protect breastfeeding and to ensure breast milk substitutes were used safely where they were necessary.

Nestlé has always denied the allegations.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future