Watering down the Milk Code

By CHERYLL D. FIEL
Davao Today

DAVAO CITY — The phrase “breast milk is still best for babies” has become a byword in commercials and labels on infant formula milk thanks to the Milk Code which mandates this marking on the packaging of formula milk.

The Milk Code, known as Executive Order 51, is now on its 25th year. The Code encourages the practice of breastfeeding for infants. A study shows that four of 10 mothers provide their infants breast milk, a practice that health experts cite to have reduced infant mortality and increased protection from illnesses. The Code also limits marketing and commercials of formula milk to children aged three and up.

But these labels might soon be erased as House Bill 3396 seeks among others to amend restrictions in the Code and allow aggressive marketing of infant formula milk catering to infants as young as six months.

The amendments have breastfeeding advocates in Davao fighting to stop the bill. Mommy Sense, a Davao-based breastfeeding support group gathered last June 16 to point out that the bill may erode the gains in the advocacy on breastfeeding and add burden to Filipino families to put up with the cost of formula milk.

The draft bill, “An Act Promoting Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices and Regulating the Trade, Marketing and Promotions of Certain foods for Infants and Children,” has the following amendments:
• removing marketing restrictions on formula milk products
• removing the mandated labels on milk products that promote breast milk and cite the dangers of formula feeding
• disentitle working mothers in which their salaries will be deducted due to lactation breaks of 40 minutes per day
• allow direct advertising or giving of samples or supplies in hospitals and other health institutions, or mother-baby events.

Alexandria Hao and Lyn Tan, co-founders of Mommy Sense, said these amendments undermine the benefits of breast milk which are far and wide.

Health experts have cited that exclusive breastfeeding for the infants’ first six months onward, and supplementing with solid foods until infants are two years old significantly reduces infant mortality, aside from the fact that breast milk helps protect babies and young children against dangerous illnesses.

On the other hand, formula milk advertising promotes themselves as “essential” for complete nourishment of children. But Francesca Tatad-To, a pediatrician-neonatologist well-quoted by breastfeeding advocates, said formula milk only contains extra calories that are usually from sugar and fat, not from any added special nutrients as most of these commercials claim.

Hao is worried that such commercials will confuse mothers. She cites a study by the World Health Organization last year which indicates that Filipino mothers exposed to advertisements are two to four times more likely to resort to feeding their babies with infant formula products, and are 6.4 times more likely to stop breastfeeding within one year of age.

Tan, a breastfeeding counselor, is wary that more Filipino women will be affected especially the marginalized since they do not have access to adequate information.

Tan recalled an experience of how she came across a mother in a grocery store holding her baby and looking desperate as she glanced up a shelf full of formula milk products. “I wanted to go to her and tell her that the best milk she could give her child was from a mother’s breasts,” Tan said.

Anne Shangrila Fuentes, a social science professor of the University of the Philippines-Mindanao pointed out that these advertisements play on the “psyche of the Filipino.”

“It is unfortunate enough to be in a country that cannot produce its own to meet its people’s needs. To be forced to consume products from foreign multinational companies dumped on our grocery shelves is a tragedy,” Fuentes said as she laments how the country’s position in the world market as a dumping ground of products has compromised enough the well-being of Filipino children.

“When other countries have stricter policies when it comes to products that have something to do with the health and well-being of their citizens, here in our own country, some lawmakers are feeding its people to the pangs of corporate greed at the expense of people’s interests,” Fuentes said.

Mommy Sense said another benefit for mothers for breast milk is it does not cost a peso, compared to the use of infant formula, which is estimated to cost a family as much as P40,000 (USD 951.54) a year.

They believe that these revisions are motivated by “milk-companies-supported interests.”

Data from the Philippine Food and Nutrition Research Institute noted an increase in breastfeeding practice in three years from 36 percent in 2008 to 46.7 percent in 2011. Conversely, a 16-percent decline was noted in the use of artificial milk and complementary food for babies from 55.4 percent in 2008 to 39.4 percent in 2011.

“Can you imagine how much milk companies would lose if more mothers will breastfeed their babies?” Tan said as she points out that a 10 percent increase in breastfeeding practices could potentially slash P4.2 billion (USD 0.1B) from an industry which is estimated to earn P42 billion (USD 1B) a year.

Breastfeeding advocates are dismayed that some of the proponents of the draft House bill are women, to include Representatives Lani Mercado-Revilla, Lucy Torres-Gomez, Josephine Veronique Lacson-Noel and Anna York Bondoc. Other lawmakers behind the proposal are Magtanggol Gunigundo, Rufus Rodriguez and Anthony Golez.

Mommy Sense is now running a signature campaign against HB 3396. They are also urging women to write their congressional representatives to vote down HB 3396.

They ask legislators to leave the Milk Code as it is so that it cannot be manipulated.

“They haven’t even given the Milk Code a chance, in terms of fully implementing the law. Now they are attempting to change it in the favor of milk companies,” Hao said.

As Hao said, voting against this “monster bill” is a matter of standing up for this crucial public health issue, and acting, foremost, in the Filipino children’s behalf. ()

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