Big-name milk formula brands continue to flout Myanmar law
- By Victoria Bruce | Tuesday, 20 October 2015
Some of the world’s largest infant formula companies continue to defy Myanmar law, despite being given a grace period of over 14 months to comply with a 2014 law regulating the industry.
Big-name brands including Nestle, Abbott, Wyeth and Dumex are among the top offenders, continuing to supply products with incorrect labelling, according to international NGO Save the Children, which says many formula manufacturers and distributors are violating Myanmar law.
Myanmar introduced the “Order of Marketing of Forumlated Food for Infant and Young Child”, a code adopted from the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breast Milk Substitutes, into its National Food Law on July 24, 2014.
It is aimed at regulating the sale and promotion of infant formula andpromoting the importance of exclusive breastfeeding until a child is at least six months old.
Companies were also required to translate their formula labels into the Myanmar language before an October 17 deadline.
However, a lack of government enforcement means milk formula companies are getting away with breaking the law, and incorrectly labelled product continues to line the shelves of Myanmar’s major supermarket chains.
“Many companies claim to abide by the Code for public image, even though they do not, as shown in many violations committed,” Constance Ching from advocacy group International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) wrote in an email.
Jennifer Cashin, a consultant for Save the Children in Yangon, said there’s no question that manufacturers know they are breaking the rules. “They are complicit in, or are actually taking lead in, breaking the law, which they do in many countries around the world,” she said.
Civil society groups and NGOs, with support from IBFAN, are working together to compile lists of labelling violations and to train healthcare workers on how to monitor the international Code.
However Ms Cashin said more information on the new regulations needs to be provided to local distribution networks, such as importers, distributors and shopkeepers.
“It’s very important to get the word out and raise awareness of what is a violation, particularly in product labelling,” she said.
She said the most common labelling violations include promoting a product with health claims, or pictures of infants, and using labels that are not in Myanmar language.
Companies are not allowed to advertise or promote their products to the public. Gifts to mothers or healthcare workers are also forbidden under the Myanmar Order. All products must also have adequate labelling stating the superiority of breastfeeding.
Several manufacturers have taken steps to comply with the Myanmar code and translate labelling information into the local language, but Save the Children collected many examples of violations during its pilot Code monitoring program, said the NGO’s spokesperson for the Code, U Swe Lin Maung.
He added that the government response to enforcing the new regulations has been slow, but civil society groups and NGOs are gearing up for more monitoring activities.
An official from the Ministry of Public Health who asked not to be named said departments responsible for enforcing the regulations was struggling to find staff, but that the government would start its enforcement program from October 17.
U Tun Zaw from the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Safety Department said the two departments responsible for enforcing the rules are the Ministry of Public Health’s National Nutrition Centre, which will monitor and enforce the promotion of infant formula in healthcare facilities, and the FDA, which will monitor and enforce labelling for new imports.
However, there are estimated to be tens of thousands of incorrectly labelled infant formula products in the market.
These are still available on the shelves of major supermarket chains such as City Mart, Ocean and Capital Hypermarket and it is unclear whether the government will request distributors to replace these products with ones that adhere to labelling regulations.
Martin Hoelscher, general manager for Danone which owns popular Malaysia brand Dumex, told The Myanmar Times that Dumex had taken all necessary steps to comply with the Myanmar law, however incorrectly labelled stock was still in circulation.
“We estimate that more than 80 percent of our impacted products now on shelf are already in the new labelling,” Mr Hoelscher wrote in an email, declining to comment on what steps the company was taking to ensure existing stock complied with the new regulations.
U Tun Zaw agreed that existing product in the market remains a grey spot and said his department would be collecting data on brands and the exact amount of product, before enforcing any penalty.
“Distributors are concerned about economic impact but overall they say they are willing to comply with our new law,” U Tun Zaw says, adding that many distributors reported difficulties negotiating with the manufacturers.
He said a workshop would be held with the Ministry of Commerce, the FDA, the Ministry of Public Health and distributors to discuss penalties for companies who continued to violate the regulations.
Multinational Nestle entered the Myanmar market in 2012, and said that it was in discussions with the Ministry of Health and the FDA, and had obtained clarifications on the local code, with other member companies of the Asia-Pacific Infant and Young Child Nutrition Association (APIYCNA).
“Dialogue has begun through APIYCNA/members of APIYCNA [with] business in Myanmar,” David Pettinari, country manager of Nestle Myanmar, wrote in an email.
While many companies claim to abide by the international Code, the evidence of violations recorded by Code monitoring groups speaks for itself, said Ms Ching from IBFAN.
“The Code’s purpose is to protect infant and young child health, while companies’ sole purpose is to make profit. Protecting and promoting breastfeeding has an impact on product sales and the bottom line of profit, therefore there is an inherent and blatant conflict of interest,” she wrote in an email.
When questioned about products that were red-flagged in Save the Children’s report, and whether Nestle would recall these from the local market, Mr Pettinari insisted Nestle Myanmar’s infant formula products comply with Myanmar’s new regulations. “Following the implementation of the Local Code in 2014, all our labels were aligned to ensure compliance,” he wrote in an email.
“Our teams spend considerable time training and explaining our to distribution partners and sales force the importance of being fully compliant with the local code, while labelling of products is implemented by Nestle Myanmar,” he added.
According to IBFAN, infants who are breastfed have less risk of contracting ear and respiratory infections, diarrhoea, meningitis and allergies due to the antibodies passed from a mother’s breast milk to her baby.
Mothers who breastfeed also have reduced risk of type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, obesity, ovarian cancer, post-partum depression and bladder infections.
Ms Cashin said that while Myanmar has a strong breastfeeding culture, existing data showed rates of exclusive breastfeeding are low and mothers often experienced pressure from family members to supplement breastfeeding with “something extra” to increase the baby’s weight.
“If you are living in an urban area and are bombarded with messages about how a product will make your baby fat and smart and see better, that’s going to look like a really good option,” Ms Cashin said.
Without proper enforcement, experts believe the combination of a poorly regulated and expanding infant formula industry, lack of public health information, and unethical marketing practices by formula companies could have a detrimental effect on Myanmar’s breastfeeding culture and create serious health risks for Myanmar’s children.
Article first published in the Myanmar Times, Wednesday 04 October, 2015