Philippines launches inquiry into formula milk firms targeting poor

Photograph: Hanna Adcock/Save the Children

By Hannah Ellis-Petersen /theguardian.com – The Department of Health in the Philippines has said it will investigate the actions of four milk formula companies, after the Guardian exposed the illegal and clandestine methods used to market products to mothers.

Officials in the DOH confirmed they were taking action and had also passed on the violations uncovered by the Guardian to the Food and Drug Authority, which holds the power to formally investigate and hand out financial punishment.

Representatives from Nestlé, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth (now owned by Nestlé) were described as a constant presence in hospitals in the Philippines, where only 34% of mothers exclusively breastfeed in the first six months of their child’s life.

The representatives reportedly hand out “infant nutrition” pamphlets to mothers, which appear to be medical advice but in fact recommend specific formula brands and sometimes have money-off coupons.

They were also found to be offering doctors, midwives and local health workers free gifts and sponsored trips paid for by milk formula companies, to win their loyalty. This is a clear violation of Philippine law. All four companies have rejected the allegations and denied any wrongdoing.

Dr Anthony Calibo, the national programme manager for infant and young feeding, and division chief for the children’s health division of the DOH, said he was “aghast with the rampant violations that this investigation shows are still happening”.

“It has been a struggle for government to crack down on all of these illicit practices of the milk companies but we thought that things had changed a bit and improved,” said Calibo, who said the DOH was now reaching out to their offices at local level to “investigate and validate these clear violations”.

“We will also be making sure the FDA looks into the matter because they are the regulatory body with the power to implement sanctions, such as fines,” Calibo added. He admitted that a lack of resources meant the DOH struggled to regulate the activities of milk formula companies and gathering evidence of violations was equally tough.

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