Food and drug companies are using aggressive marketing tactics similar to those used in the tobacco industry to circumvent advertising bans on infant formulas and sell milk drinks to parents, a nutritionist has warned.
Pediatric nutritionists and medical experts say the marketing of milk formula to toddlers, including the tactic of handing out samples to pregnant women, should be banned.
The marketing techniques were criticised this week during a Sydney hearing of the parliamentary inquiry into the benefits of breastfeeding.
Under an agreement by the Manufacturers of Australian Infant Formula, companies may not advertise formula for children under 12 months as it has been shown to reduce breastfeeding rates. However, there are no restrictions on advertising toddler milk or follow-on formulas.
Professor Colin Binns, who helped develop pediatric and adolescent nutritional guidelines for the National Health and Medical Research Council, said formula companies were getting around the restrictions by using the same or similar trade names, such as "formula" and "gold", in infant and toddler milks.
"It is a technique used by tobacco companies which use their brand name on clothing and other merchandise to capture the teen market," he told the Herald.
While he does not oppose toddler milk or its marketing, he said he would "much prefer to see children drink a milk-based product than a fruit juice".
The president of the Australian Lactation Consultants Association, Gwen Moody, said food should replace milk as the primary source of energy during a child's second year. "Mothers buy the formula and they also give their child cow's milk so either the child doesn't eat because they're not hungry, or they do eat, which can lead to weight gain. It is very clever to develop a market for this age when a child should be eating solids."
A Sydney pediatrician, Dr Patricia McVeagh, said children's appetites naturally decreased at the toddler stage.
"Unfortunately the advertising preys on parents' vulnerability," she said. "Nutritionally there is no need for toddler milk in healthy kids, and it's much better to have 600 millilitres of cow's milk or a cow's milk product like cheese or yoghurt."
Mina Hornby knew she was feeding her son Pavle, 20 months, a healthy diet of fish, vegetables, meat and milk. However, conflicting advice and pressure to be a good mother prompted her to give him toddler formula before switching back to cow's milk. Louise Duursma, a member of the Australian Breastfeeding Association, said new mothers were targeted at baby expos where toddler formula samples were given to pregnant women. "They are indirectly selling their formulas to newborn babies."
The Infant Formula Manufacturers' Association of Australia, which represents Heinz, Nutricia, Nestle and the pharmaceutical companies Wyeth and Bayer, denies that toddler milk affects breastfeeding rates.
Its executive director, Janet Carey, said the product was developed in Europe as a response to research showing that 30 per cent of young children were deficient in iron. "It really wasn't developed as a cynical way to getting around marketing restrictions [of infant formula] in Australia," she said.
She agreed with nutritionists that toddler milk was not necessary, "just like vitamin supplements aren't necessary", but it could supplement the diets of "fussy eaters".
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