Foods for infants and young children: a cause for concern?

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World Breastfeeding Week, held from 1 to 7 August each year, sparks discussion across the WHO European Region around growing international concern about infant feeding. Many commercial food products are marketed as suitable for babies from 4 months, which can displace the consumption of breast milk. Worryingly, sugary purees and snack foods high in free sugars dominate the market.

WHO recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed until 6 months of age, followed by continued breastfeeding with complementary foods for up to 2 years or beyond.

The WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Non-Communicable Diseases (NCD Office) has developed a model law on effective regulatory frameworks to end the inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes for infants and young children In the region.

Existing regulatory guidelines governing the formulation and marketing of these unsuitable products are outdated and insufficient. The model law will enable countries to strengthen their adherence to the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and protect young children from the harmful effects of inappropriate food marketing.

Improving commercial infant products

The model law was endorsed by the 2022 progress report on the implementation of the International Code, which states: “Countries that have not revised their laws or regulations on the marketing of breast-milk substitutes over the years should use this report to identify gaps in coverage of all provisions of the Code and take steps to update their legal measures.

Patti Rundall, policy director for Baby Milk Action, a non-governmental organization, says: “This model law is extremely important. It is clear and easy to read and brings together all the global safeguards that policy makers need to remember when considering how to protect the rights of our youngest citizens. It’s the perfect tool for those who want to update legislation and close loopholes that allow harmful marketing to thrive.

Patti adds: “It should be remembered that none of the proposed safeguards deprives parents of the right to decide how they feed their babies; they just make sure everyone gets full and candid information about the products on the market.

Nutrition profiling and promotion

The Office of NCDs is also shining a spotlight on issues associated with commercial infant products by developing the world’s first nutrient profiling and promotion model for infants and young children. The model assesses nutritional and promotional needs across different product categories and creates results that clearly show where product reformulation should take place and where marketing restrictions should be applied.

Kremlin Wickramasinghe, Acting Head of the Office of Noncommunicable Diseases and WHO/Europe Regional Adviser for Nutrition, Physical Activity and Obesity, explains: “This model provides Member States and relevant stakeholders with a tool to assess the ingredients of commercial baby foods, as well as how they are packaged and promoted. Every country that uses the model can adapt it and take an important step towards achieving nutrition-related goals for this vulnerable age group.

This European initiative is recognized worldwide and plays a key role in improving the nutrition of infants and young children in Europe and beyond. The NCD Office is happy to collaborate with other WHO regions in this area.

And then ?

As part of its commitment to make nutrient profiling and promotion accessible, WHO is developing a toolkit and a digital version of the model. These assets help countries assess products and make policy recommendations that are critical to halting the rise of diabetes and obesity in the Global NCD Surveillance Framework. Training workshops are also provided to Member States to facilitate the implementation of the model law.

This work contributes directly to fulfilling the obligations set out in World Health Assembly resolution WHA71.9 to:

• promote timely and adequate complementary feeding; and
• continue to take all necessary steps in the interest of public health to implement recommendations to end the inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children.

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