New Delhi: Pharma giant Abbott and international food major Danone are being examined by the Narendra Modi government for alleged malpractices to promote their baby food supplements in India, ThePrint has learnt.
The Ministry of Health & Family Welfare is examining a complaint filed by NGO Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI), which has accused both companies of violating the law that protects, promotes and supports breastfeeding in India.
The BPNI had been notified by the government to monitor the compliance of the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Act (commonly known as IMS Act), in a letter dated 14 August that has been accessed by ThePrint.
The BPNI filed the complaint with Secretary, Health & Family Welfare, Rajesh Bhushan.
“The complaint has been taken up by the ministry and we are examining the issue. We will take action once the allegations levelled against the companies (in the complaint letter) are verified,” said a senior health ministry official who did not wish to be named.
This is not the first complaint the BPNI has filed against Abbott and Danone. In January this year, it had accused Danone of “making incorrect claims about breastfeeding” and Abbott Nutrition of “organising a programme at an upscale restaurant to promote its products”.
The central government had, at the time, asked state governments to investigate the matter, but no update was made available to the media or to the complainant.
The fresh accusations
The BPNI, in its complaint letter, has accused both Abbott and Danone of sponsoring online seminars for doctors, contradicting Section 9(2) of the IMS Act, which prohibits direct and indirect sponsorship of health workers by baby product manufacturers. It attached eight posters promoting the sponsored webinars, of which seven were organised by Abbott and one by Danone, dated between 23 May and 8 August.
The Act states: “No producer, supplier or distributor referred to in sub-section (1), shall offer or give any contribution or pecuniary benefit to a health worker or any association of health workers, including funding of seminar, meeting, conferences, educational course, contest, fellowship, research work or sponsorship.”
According to the BPNI, some of the topics for the webinars “sponsored” by Abbott were ‘lactose intolerance in paediatric practice’, ‘digital initiatives to enhance the way to deliver neonatal care’ and ‘paediatrics knowledge enhancement by experts’.
The one “sponsored” by Danone was on ‘Nutrition First for First 1000 Days’, organised by the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI), a federation of 259 societies with over 38,000 individual members.
Danone denies wrongdoing
In an emailed response to questions from ThePrint, Danone has denied any wrongdoing: “No infant formula products were discussed or showcased in this webinar.”
A spokesperson for the company stated: “At Danone, we implement and enforce strict policies to ensure compliant marketing practices and would like to reiterate that we have not violated the IMS Act by supporting the recent FOGSI webinar on ‘Nutrition First for First 1000 Days’.”
The spokesperson added, “This was a scientific forum for gynaecologists with independent medical experts, to enhance their knowledge. Danone supports the WHO guidelines and public health recommendations which call for exclusive breast-feeding for the first 6 months of life, and continued breast-feeding up to two years and beyond.”
Abbott also said no law was violated.
“We’re committed to advancing and elevating standards of medical science and we partner with healthcare professionals to support dissemination of scientific knowledge to meet the evolving needs of people in India, including the nutritional needs of children. All webinars mentioned in the letter are in compliance with applicable laws including the IMS Act,” a company spokesperson said in an email.
Other alleged violations
Last year, food major Nestle was under the Indian government’s lens for violating the IMS Act by sponsoring research in five Indian hospitals.
Following a complaint by BPNI, the health ministry had alerted the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) to “examine the matter and take necessary action”.
Following the complaint, ICMR constituted a committee for further investigation, which concluded that Nestle’s sponsorship violated the law. The five-hospital study was immediately terminated and the committee recommended prosecution of the violators (the researchers and the company).
This report has been updated to reflect the response of Abbott spokesperson