Mixed Messages coming from Irish Government on Infant Formula and Milk Powder

10th October 2016
Press Release

The consumption of infant formula is sounding alarms for The World Health Organization (WHO) around the world but especially in China where consumption is growing as dairy exporters like Ireland strive to expand and dominate the Chinese infant formula market. Regardless of the health, economic and environmental recommendations, Irish dairy producers are marketing their infant formula in China and in other EU and international markets as sustainable, healthy and premium products. However, it is globally recognized and encouraged by international organizations and governments that breastfeeding is the best option for mother and child. Breastfeeding should be the exclusive source of nutrition for a child within the first six months of life. Beyond the six months it is recommended by health experts to continue breastfeeding until the age of 2-3 in addition to feeding the child solid foods (WHO, 2015). Breastfeeding does not require additional health infrastructure or costs to the mother. The WHO recommends breastfeeding because of the protection it provides against diarrhoeal disease, respiratory infections and other life –threatening ailments. It also provides protection against obesity and non-communicable diseases such as asthma and diabetes. (WHO, 2015) Further research has found, with the increasing health benefits of breastfeeding, it can, “contribute to the reduction of child mortality and inequalities in developing countries.” Active promotion of breastfeeding can prevent a large proportion of child deaths and disease burden (Thomas Roberts et al, 2013). Due to the substantial benefits of breastfeeding the WHO advocates reducing the advertising and consumption of baby formula to increase the chances of mothers choosing to breastfeed (WHO, 2015). Ireland’s Department of Health also advocates for mothers to choose breastfeeding. This is demonstrated in their mission statement for the five-year strategic plan for breastfeeding, stating, “To improve the nation’s health by ensuring that breastfeeding is the norm for infants and young children in Ireland” (Ireland Department of Health, 2005). The message that is portrayed by the Department of Health to Ireland’s public is aligned with the WHO’s goal of increasing the percentage of infants exclusively breastfed in the first six months by at least 50% by the year 2025 (WHO, 2015).

Ireland’s Department of Agriculture has an entirely contrary vision for the global projections of how infants are fed by the year 2025. The Department of Agriculture’s targets by the year 2025 are outlined in, Food Wise 2025. Food Wise 2025 places a high value on the importance of the dairy sector and its increasing export capacity, valued at over €3.2 billion in 2015 (Bord Bia, 2015). In 2015 Irish infant formula value accounted for €1.5 billion in exports and is now 35% of all dairy exports (Allen, 2016). Ireland accounts for 10% of the global infant formula supply with major importers being China, and the UK. According to Bord Bia’s website, Ireland accounts for 17% of the infant formula market in China, making it the second largest exporter to China, right behind New Zealand (Bord Bia, 2015). The increasing demand for infant formula in Chinese markets is seen as an economic opportunity to Ireland’s agricultural sector, one that is believed to drive growth and improve Ireland’s GDP. To counter this projected growth, in alignment with the WHO recommendations, the Chinese government has released a statement that they are seeking to ban baby formula advertisements within their borders (Guo, S., et al., 2010). This exemplifies the global understanding of the benefits of breastfeeding for both the child’s and the mother’s health. Why is Ireland promoting the exact opposite through its increasing production and entry into international markets? Ireland’s infant formula producing companies, with the support of the DAFM seek to push domestic sales and exports of infant formula, and they are succeeding as seen with the revenue-generated statistics stated above. Irish companies have been known to target mothers to use their products before even leaving the hospital, by giving out free samples on the birthing floor both domestically and aboard. This occurrence was noted in a study on marketing, advertising and distributing of formula in Ireland, “breast milk substitute is nearly always provided for free during the stay in the maternity ward (96%)” (Food Safety Authority of Ireland, 2007). The WHO has publicly stated that these practices are not promoting best health practices. The WHO designed a code for the international marketing of breastfeeding milk substitutes outlining rules for the promotion of infant formula. No free samples of these products to expectant mothers or families with young children are a top priority in this code (WHO, 1981). In conclusion these practices evidently harm a nation’s breastfeeding rate considering the prevalence of free samples in Irish hospitals and the low rate of 15% of exclusively breastfed infants in the first six months of life in Ireland (WHO, 2015). Therefore, Ireland has a much to do in improving breastfeeding rates both domestically and aboard.

Irish dairy companies are consciously engaged with unethical practices by domestically and globally acting contrary to the WHO recommendations, and against the efforts of governments like the Chinese’s ban on advertisements for infant formula. This is concerning, considering there are very few serious health issues that prevent a mother from breastfeeding. The global percentage of mothers that cannot produce enough milk is estimated to be between 1 to 5%, while the number of mothers who are physically incapable of producing any milk is even lower (Breastfeeding Basics, 2015). It is important to ensure that mothers have options, but flooding the market with breastfeeding alternatives is not beneficial to a society in any sense. Economically, a nation that has low rates of breastfeeding may benefit from infant formula sales, but suffers in healthcare costs, as preventable diseases and child mortality would be consequently raised, according to the WHO. In addition, the argument concerning mothers that need to use infant formula because they have to work is not substantial. Companies are encouraged to give mothers breastfeeding breaks and there is breasting feeding technology like breast pumps that allow the child to be breastfed without the mother present (Health Service Executive, 2007). Thus, there is a very small credible need for infant formula.

The increase in infant formula production and distribution also opposes the Department of Agriculture’s claim to being environmentally sustainable and contributing to food security. It is hard to deny the short-term economic profit motives resulting in the increase in trade of infant formula. Considering, it costs €43 per kilo in China for Kerry Groups ‘Green Love+’ products, which is four times as much as infant formula sold in Ireland (Becto, 2015). However, this economic profit comes at very high social and environmental costs as the dairy industry’s resources go towards creating a product that is to a large degree unnecessary. The process of creating and distributing infant formula adds to pressure on climate change and takes resources away from contributing to global food security efforts. The FAO (2013) states overall that, “GHG emissions from cattle represent about 65 percent of the livestock sector emissions (4.6 gigatonnes CO2-eq), making cattle the largest contributor to total sector emissions”. Therefore, the source of infant formula is a pressuring force, adding to climate change. Infant formula also requires a lot of resources for production and packaging including: paper, aluminum, plastic, cardboard, tin, plastic and steel. In addition to the input resources, Irish infant formula also has a lot of food miles, considering the industry’s target markets are in Asia and emerging in Africa (Eco Friendly Food, 2010). For a product that has been proven and promoted by the WHO as unwarranted for the vast majority of mothers, it consumes a lot of resources and exerts a lot of negative externalities that limit global food security efforts and heightens climate change.

Ireland’s dairy industry is not addressing the issues that it is sparking in the context of global food security and climate change. Attention is instead, focused on increasing value and expanding production, as noted in Food Wise 2025 (DAFM, 2015). This is demonstrated as Ornua, an Irish dairy organization, announced that it has established a manufacturing plant in Shanghai to enable better access to, “high end retail market and will provide an entry point into supplying dairy ingredients to the rapidly growing Chinese Food Service industry” (Moran, 2016). Ornua has also established a dairy powdered milk-packaging factory in Nigeria. In discussing this new development, The Minister of DAFM (2015) Minister Coveney praises the global expansion of the dairy industry, announcing that, “Expanding economies in West Africa provide fertile ground for Irish companies in the agri-food sector wishing to expand their global footprint” (DAFM, 2015). The expansion of the dairy industry into global manufacturing to further its reach to global markets does not embody the sustainability with which the Irish dairy companies are branding themselves as. An Economist report suggests that Ireland’s expansion into Nigeria is damaging local suppliers’ businesses and Nigeria’s self-sufficiency in food supply. In the report Uncowed by the Economist (2015) it was noted that when local milk product, “finally arrives on supermarket shelves, it costs around three times what it would in Europe. Cheap long-life imports [i.e. Irish milk powder] sell for less than half the price of local milk. Nigeria spends roughly $1m a day on imported milk powder”. This poses a serious threat to global food security, as it spreads the promotion of intensified agricultural production to globalize western overconsumption patterns, instead of promoting local production.

In addition, imported dairy products contribute to marginalizing a large portion of the population in places like Nigeria where the number of people living in poverty, is staggeringly high and has increased to 61% in 2010 from 52% in 2004 (National Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Increasing the supply of products that are expensive and imported like Irish dairy, adds to the divide of the ‘haves and have not’ in developing countries, like Nigeria and Ghana, where Ireland is expanding exports to. This expansion is detrimental to food security as it undercuts local production by increasing competition where it is already nearly impossible for local farmers to make a profit. In addition, the promotion of dairy products like infant formula in developing and emerging economy countries, negatively affects environmental sustainability and human health, and as seen can also negatively affect incomes and national economies. To counter the increase in consumption inequality and poverty, breastfeeding is proven to contribute to raising household incomes, as seen “In Brazil, a study found that when infants are breastfed for more than 12 months income increases by 33%”, because breastfed children have higher IQs, which largely affects their income as adults (Victora et al, 2015). Overall, dairy exports to developing and emerging economy countries should not be directed to target lucrative markets to gain the best short-term economical advantage, alone. Rather exports should be supplied to meet the nutritional, economical and environmental demands of both the exporting and importing country.

Taken from Ireland’s Agricultural Sector’s Role in Food Security in the Wake of Climate Change a report by Lisa Ashton – February 2016 http://www.antaisce.org/sites/antaisce.org/files/irelands_agricultural_sectors_role_in_food_security_in_the_wake_of_climate_change_.pdf