Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Why not just give him a bottle? Infant formula company sponsorship of the midwifery profession

Way back in 1990 I organised a study day in Balclutha for rural midwifery. It was a huge success and we had about 90 midwives and other medical staff attend. We sought sponsorship from local businesses and had some trade stands. The local chemist was a sponsor and on their stand had some infant formula and related products. Shortly after the event we received a formal complaint from the monitoring body for the WHO/UNICEF code of marketing of breast milk substitutes, pointing out the many areas in which we were in breach of the code. The chemist received the same complaint. We were taken aback and it took the shine off what had been a great event. I became very familiar with the code and never committed a similar offence again.

Some time ago I stumbled on a documentary series from the Philipines on Youtube. It outlines the marketing strategies of infant formula companies in that country. This includes inducements to midwives with free samples and misinformation about the benefits of one or other infant formula. These midwives then promote the products to the women they are working with.

Recently I was made aware of the association between the British Journal of Midwifery and the infant formula company Cow and Gate in a midwifery awards scheme. When I investigated this further I found that Cow & Gate have a whole arm of the company devoted to providing research grants and educational support to midwives and other health professionals such as Health Visitors who have influence with women and are in a position to promote their product. While The company does not ask midwives to promote its product none the less midwives cannot help but be influenced by this sponsorship which is significant. This sponsorship is in fact not much different to that being given to the Philipine midwives in the documentary mentioned above. Cow & Gate In Practice was actually launched at the Royal College of Midwives in 1999. clearly the Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes has been interpreted quite differently in the UK to the interpretation in New Zealand. Or is it just that it has been largely ignored in the UK? Here is a summary of the code.
Through the In Practice website Cow & Gate promote their special hospital bottles of formula, plastered with their logo and full of information about the particular benefits of this formula.

I have challenged this promotional activity between the British Journal of Midwifery and the Cow and Gate milk company in an open forum and by email. However the In Practice website was launched at the Royal College of Midwives and the study days being delivered across the country are accredited professional development for the UK Nursing and Midwifery Council. It is therefore not just the British Journal of Midwifery who need to look to themselves and their relationships with infant formula companies. It goes much wider than that.
The International Board of Lactation Consultants had a similar issue with corporate sponsorship and have identified that this is a serious issue. They now have clear policies to avoid this.

I am just a New Zealand midwife. Although I was originally UK born and trained my working life has been here in New Zealand since 1981. It may be that I am too removed from practice in the UK to see these issues clearly from the perspective of practice in that country, or it may be that from this distance I am more able to see these things clearly. I have no wish to cause offence and apologise if I have done so. Am I totally mistaken in my opinion that there is a serious problem here? I value the thoughts and comments of others on this issue.

See this photo posted on Flickr by Sophie Passmore. It was taken on November 2011 and shows a baby change mat from a UK shopping centre changing room. I would have loved to use this here but it does not have an open licence.


Grizabella said...

There are many UK midwives who are very concerned regarding the RCM and the Cow and Gate sponsorship, and many other partnerships the RCM has entered into. Head to "www.themidwiferysanctuary.com" and ask a few questions there. Some are even giving up their membership of the RCM in protest.

Carolyn said...

Thank you for pointing me to this Grizabella. I see that many midwives are unhappy with RCM for a variety of reasons and one of those is the corporate sponsorship the College is engaged in. There are midwives in New Zealand who probably feel unhappy with our College too for a variety of reasons, but not thankfully commercial sponsorship, although we have debated if we should allow Johnson and Johnson to advertise in the Journal from time to time. There has to be a way to get your voices heard here? Is there a will to do that in the UK do you think? I did not see many complaining about the association with Danone or Cow and Gate.

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