New Delhi: Two international companies, food major Danone Nutricia and pharma giant Abbott Nutrition, are under the Modi government’s lens for allegedly employing malpractices to promote their baby food.
The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare has taken cognisance of two complaints filed by NGO Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), which accused the firms of malpractice in Delhi.
The union government has now forwarded the complaints to the Delhi government for further verification.
“Action has already been initiated… As health is a state subject, the state government will further verify the complaint and update us. If true, we will penalise both companies for breaching the law,” a senior official from the health ministry said.
While Danone Nutricia is accused of making incorrect claims about breastfeeding, Abbott Nutrition is allegedly organising a programme at an upscale restaurant to promote its products.
Both examples constitute a breach of the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Act, also known as the IMS Act, which seeks to check misleading marketing efforts for baby food.
However, the two firms have denied any wrongdoing, telling ThePrint in an emailed response that they practise “zero tolerance” for unethical practices.
What is the complaint?
Delhi-based BPNI wrote two letters to the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare on 24 January. ThePrint has accessed both letters.
In one, it claimed Paris-headquartered Danone Nutricia has been distributing “promotional materials for increasing… sales through health claims in a hospital in Delhi”.
According to BPNI, the handouts contained “baseless claims” that their powder is helpful to mothers with an inadequate supply of milk. “However, the supply is never inadequate and it all depends on a mother’s motivation. Such promotions discourage mothers from breastfeeding,” said BPNI central coordinator Arun Gupta.
The letter was marked to Health Secretary Preeti Sudan.
In the second letter, BPNI alleged that Abbott Nutrition, an arm of the American pharma giant Abbott Healthcare, has organised a “continuous medical education (CME)” programme on “30 January at 9.32 pm” at an upmarket restaurant in Greater Kailash, New Delhi.
“The topic of the CME is ‘Closing in on mother’s milk’,” the letter said. It also named a reputed doctor who will allegedly speak at the programme.
This letter is primarily addressed to Delhi Health Minister Satyendar Jain, with a copy marked to Sudan.
A bid to encourage breastfeeding
The IMS Act, introduced in 1992, prohibits direct and indirect sponsorship of health workers by product manufacturers.
It also bars financial inducements, pecuniary benefit, and funding of seminars, educational courses, contests, fellowships or research for health workers by companies manufacturing baby products listed under the IMS Act.
The deepening scrutiny on baby-food companies comes amid global efforts to promote breastfeeding as the healthiest way to rear infants. Among other things, breast milk is believed to be key to a child’s immunity. As a result, demands for restrictions on misleading advertisements about substitutes like formula have been growing louder.
The growing consensus around the necessity of breastfeeding, The New York Times noted in a report last year, has seen baby-food sales “flatten in wealthy countries in recent years”.
According to the same report, “A 2016 study in The Lancet found that universal breastfeeding would prevent 800,000 child deaths a year across the globe and yield $300 billion in savings from reduced healthcare costs and improved economic outcomes for those reared on breast milk.”
Earlier this year, the Swiss food giant was also pulled up by the health ministry for sponsoring a conference with Apollo Group of Hospitals. However, Nestle has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Companies deny allegations
Approached for comment by email, a spokesperson at Danone Nutricia said they “implement and enforce strict policies to ensure compliant marketing practices and there is zero tolerance to any violation pertaining to Indian laws and regulations”.
“We also support the WHO guidelines and public health recommendations which call for exclusive breast-feeding for the first 6 months of life and continued breast-feeding upto two years and beyond,” the spokesperson added.
Abbott Nutrition said it was “committed to advancing and elevating standards of nutrition science around the world”.
“We offer knowledge transfer of scientific research to healthcare providers to meet the evolving needs of children in India, and as leaders in nutrition science and research, we are a trusted source of valuable information to the healthcare community,” it added.
“We take compliance very seriously, and fully comply with the IMS Act and adhere to stringent guidelines in our engagement with the scientific community.”
The Abbott spokesperson said the company has learnt that the complaint was made based on a message on WhatsApp — “indicating a different topic, event name and different time”.
“WhatsApp is a platform we do not use as a form of communication with HCPs (healthcare providers), and the topic mentioned in the said WhatsApp message is not in any way suggested or endorsed by Abbott. All our communication with doctors for this event was done in the form of printed invitation — our topic for this event was ‘The Role of Diet in Irritable Bowel Disorders’ and timing was 9 PM,” the company said.