After losing a Supreme Court battle to block the implementation of the Milk Code in 2007, multinational formula milk companies are now lobbying Congress to reverse the gains in promoting breastfeeding and restrict formula milk advertising.
By INA ALLECO R. SILVERIO
MANILA — Two women legislators and breastfeeding advocacy groups have declared their opposition against a proposal in the House of Representatives to amend the Milk Code or Executive Order 51.
Gabriela Representatives Emmi De Jesus and Luz Ilagan are protesting against a proposal titled “Act Promoting a Comprehensive Program on Breastfeeding Practices and Regulating the Trade, Marketing and Promotion of Certain Foods for Infant and Children,” or “The Breastfeeding and Milk Regulation Act.”The proposed act is backed by IPNAP, the Infant and Paediatric Nutrition Association of the Philippines, consisting of Nestlé, Mead Johnson, Abbott and Fonterra, and is currently being heard by the House Committees on Health and Trade and Industry.
If passed, the proposal will limit the application of the Milk Code to artificial feeding products, such as formula milk, for infants zero to six months instead of the current zero to 36 months. It will also lift all restrictions on donations of breast milk substitutes during disasters and emergencies, and allow milk companies to distribute breast milk substitutes in health care facilities, as well as conduct or be involved in breastfeeding, infant and young child healthcare and nutrition activities and materials. It will also make lactation breaks for working mothers as unpaid time.
The Revised Implementing Rules and Regulations (RIRR) of the Milk Code came into effect in 2007, following an unsuccessful challenge by formula milk manufacturers at the Philippine Supreme Court. The milk industry, however, refused to accept the ruling and has since pressed for amendments to both the Milk Code and the RIRR.
The Gabriela solons vowed to stand against the proposed amendments.
“In the midst of poverty and joblessness, while the women have yet to recover from floods, congress is tackling the Milk Code amendments and corporatization of government hospitals, a dangerous tandem that if approved and passed, will surely exterminate the right to health and survival specially for the marginalized sectors,” they said.
De Jesus pointed out that the Milk Code is a milestone policy in promoting the well-being of infants, saying that it ensures the state’s responsibility to promote breastfeeding as a vital and essential practice for the survival and development of infants.
“Congress will be inflicting damage to the future generations of Filipinos should it approve the regressive amendments to EO 51 or the Milk Code,” she said.
Association of the Rights of the Child in Southeast Asia (Arcsea) executive director Madella Santiago said, “The triumph of having a National Milk Code is a product of hard earned advocacy of breastfeeding advocates, mostly women and women’s organizations. Currently, there have been moves that were made by multi-national companies to undermine the Milk code but we, the breastfeeding and child rights advocates will not allow that.”
Arcsea is a breastfeeding advocate since its establishment in 2001 and is, up to now, actively campaigning and continuously educating mothers about the importance of breastfeeding.
Ilagan, for her part, said that the Milk Code amendments coupled with moves to privatize 26 public hospitals in the country are sure signs of how the government has abandoned its responsibility to deliver accessible health care services.
“As women and their families continue to be plagued by joblessness, low wages, and landlessness amid increases in the prices of basic goods and social services, these proposed measures will surely push them deeper into the pit of poverty and desperation,” Ilagan said. “These two legislations undoubtedly reveal that the government favours the interests of the big local and foreign private corporations more than the rights and welfare of poor Filipino families. Amending the Milk Code will ensure billions of profits for milk manufacturers at the expense of infants and young children while the corporatization of government hospitals will guarantee profit to big businesses who will invest in government hospitals at the expense of the poor.”
Santiago also said at this time of economic crisis and environmental disaster, the value of providing breast milk and its promotion is of the utmost necessity. She said amending the Milk Code is akin to allowing the formula milk companies to get away with peddling their formula milk products that contain chemicals and allergens hazardous to health.
“The multinationals seek to open the floodgates for their advertising, instructional materials, and membership in the Inter-Agency Committee that would barrage deceitful information on their milk products,” she said.
The World Health Organization (WHO), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have already called on Philippine lawmakers to stop the proposed amendments.
The WHO and the Unicef reminded lawmakers of the importance of breastfeeding, adding that 8,400 lives could be saved every year if every Filipino family with infants and small children would practice optimal breastfeeding.The two agencies also said breastfeeding prevents illnesses such as neonatal sepsis, a blood infection of newborns; diarrhoea; pneumonia; and necrotizing enterocolitis, a life-threatening problem of the gut of pre-term babies.
Breastfeeding also helps babies fight against ear infections, skin allergies, sudden infant death syndrome, childhood asthma, Type 1 diabetes, and childhood obesity.
Control marketing of formula milk
In the meantime, earlier in June, the British group Baby Milk Action sent a letter to President Benigno Aquino III, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte Jr. and Department of Health Secretary Dr. Enrique T. Ona to ask the officials to declare their opposition to the baby food industry amendments to the RIRR and Milk Code.
Baby Milk Action is a not-for-profit organisation in the United Kingdom that promotes independent controls on baby food marketing. It said the proposed Milk Code amendments will open the floodgates to highly damaging promotion of breastmilk substitutes. It will allow companies to directly target women, disguised as ‘education’.
“The only beneficiaries will be the baby milk companies. Irreparable damage will be caused to government efforts to reduce malnutrition and eliminate poverty. We support the mothers, civil society organisations, health worker bodies and international agencies in the Philippines that are opposing ‘The Breastfeeding and Milk Regulation Act’. We hope and expect policy makers will look to the public interest rather than business interests,” it said.
Baby Milk campaigns and networking coordinator Mike Brady said there is already a growing worldwide concern over the threat to the Milk Code and RIRR. It said that over 1,000 individuals from more than 40 countries have already signed a petition of solidarity with the people of the Philippines opposing the proposed legislation and calling on policy makers to protect mothers, babies and their families from the baby food industry.
“The current Milk Code and RIRR are measures the Philippines can be proud of. They go some way towards protecting the rights of mothers to accurate, independent information on infant feeding in line with Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child. They are based on the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly, which aim to protect breastfeeding and to ensure breastmilk substitutes are used safely when necessary,” he said.
Brady said that in line with the Code and Resolutions, the industry should be restricted to selling its products with appropriate labels and leave it to independent health workers to advise parents and carers. He pointed out that companies can provide designated health workers with scientific and factual information about their products and nothing more.
“The Code and Resolutions have been introduced in legislation in over 60 countries. The Philippines has played a leading role in this group, but this will come to a tragic end if The Breastfeeding and Milk Regulation Act is passed. As the Supreme Court stated in its 2007 ruling upholding the RIRR and rejecting a challenge by the industry at that time: ‘The framers of the constitution were well aware that trade must be subjected to some form of regulation for the public good. Public interest must be upheld over business interests,'” he argued. (With reports from Anne Marxze D. Umil/)