MANILA: Formula milk brands are once again under the spotlight as a new report claims manufacturers are frequently in breach of a decades-old UN code on the marketing of such products.

Thirty seven years after the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes sought to control inappropriate marketing practices to sell products for formula feeding, a report by Save the Children accused the leading six companies of having “a lamentable record” as regards compliance.

Don’t Push It highlighted how company policy and practice are frequently not aligned and argued that “the aggressive marketing of breast-milk substitutes – in violation of the Code – is part of each company’s commercial strategy and driven from the very top”.

In addition to establishing a supposed “equivalence” between breast milk and milk formula, the report detailed how companies have successfully “influenced the influencers” – friends, family and health professionals – and exploited the behavioural targeting possibilities of social media which didn’t exist when the Code was drawn up.

On the ground in Manila, the Guardian found one mother who had turned to because the local community consensus was it is “fine, the same as breast milk”.

But unable to afford the 2,000 pesos a month for a branded formula milk, she was reduced to starving not only herself but only giving her baby half bottles. And without running water or electricity, she found it difficult to sterilise bottles and make up the milk powder; her child had been to hospital three times with diarrhoea and asthma, she reported.

“The milk formula companies now take a clandestine approach,” according to Dr Amado Parawan, a health and nutrition advisor with Save the Children in the Philippines.

“On the face of it they have improved. But really they are skirting around the milk code by doing visits and dinners for midwives and doctors outside of office hours, in the evenings.”

All companies denied any wrongdoing and indicated to the Guardian that they would investigate reports of non-compliance.

Sourced from Save The Children, Guardian, Unicef; additional content by WARC staff