Confident: Adele Calvert with three-month old Lola. Photo: Ken Irwin
The government will replace an independent panel monitoring how infant formula is marketed to new parents with an industry-led oversight process.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott alarmed public health and industry groups when he announced in a press release last year that the government would disband the advisory panel, to cut costs and red tape. The panel had been charged with ensuring Australia met its international obligations to stop infant formula advertising from undermining breast feeding.
In the absence of any government-supported oversight, a group of companies selling infant formula and represented by the Infant Nutrition Council - A2 Corporation, Abbott Nutrition, Aspen Nutritionals, Bayer, Heinz, Nestle and Nutricia - have offered to work with the government to find a way of handling complaints.
Infant Nutrition Council chief executive Jan Carey said she would this week present to her board a model for monitoring the advertising claims made by companies under the INC umbrella. She said her proposal would have industry at arm's length from the complaints process, and she would put the proposal to government within weeks.
But the Australian Breastfeeding Association said it was highly unsatisfactory for industry to be establishing its own oversight processes.
''It's difficult for industry to be impartial, and there's always that risk they'll act in their own interests,'' chief executive Rachel Fuller said. ''It waters down the public health message.''
One of the ministers involved in overseeing the independent panel's scrapping and the establishment of the industry-led process is Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash, who was censured in Parliament a fortnight ago for misleading the Senate and employing a junk food industry lobbyist in her office.
The independent panel, which had run since 1992, comprised a community and consumer representative, an industry representative, a member with legal expertise, and a public health and nutrition expert.
It worked to ensure compliance with the World Health Organisation's International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes.
Senator Nash wrote to a group of organisations concerned about the panel's axing in December to say Australia upheld its WHO obligations through a ''voluntary, self-regulatory code of conduct between manufacturers and importers of infant formula''.
Ms Fuller said the Australian Breastfeeding Association had been trying to schedule a meeting with government ministers since the election.
In a letter to organisations concerned about the panel's axing, sent on March 3, a Department of Health public servant wrote: ''the department met with [industry] in December 2013 to discuss possible new arrangements to manage the complaints process … Industry undertook to provide a possible model … in early 2014.''
A spokesperson from Senator Nash's office said strong awareness, a declining number of complaints, and industry compliance meant the panel was no longer necessary.
''The Department of Health is currently working with industry to develop new arrangements … It is expected that all stakeholders continue to actively monitor infant formula marketing activities in Australia to ensure consistent and accurate information.''
Advertisers put mixed messages in baby's bottle
Adele Calvert is a confident mother of four, including her youngest baby, three-month old Lola.
Six years ago, it was a different story.
''With my first baby, I breastfed her for seven weeks and she just didn't sleep,'' Mrs Calvert said. ''I felt quite confident in my breastfeeding until a health nurse actually suggested that I give her formula so that she'd sleep, and that was actually the start of my weaning and move to formula.''
Asked whether it worked in getting her child to sleep, Mrs Calvert laughs. ''No. It is something that you have to have the support and confidence around, and it is easy to buy into that - my baby will sleep, my baby will be settled if I stop breastfeeding them,'' she said.
By the time it became clear that formula would not help it was too late - Mrs Calvert could no longer breast feed.
''So my concern with having the industry overseeing the marketing of infant formula is … quite aggressive advertising getting in there,'' she said. ''Formula companies will tell you that a formula will help reflux babies or to buy this formula for colic babies, or that one will stop them crying. And when you're tired and vulnerable, it just seems easier to try anything that'll work.''
With the axing of the independent panel that oversaw complaints on the marketing of infant formula, the industry will work with government to manage complaints.
Jo Davey, who has two children aged one and three, breastfed her oldest child during the day and bottle-fed at night for two weeks, before switching to full-time breastfeeding. Mrs Davey's hospital told her that night bottle feeding could make her baby sleep for longer, but she found she was still getting up multiple times.
''It was a really stressful decision … you're tired and hormonal, and the advertising is really emotionally driven. It does make it harder,'' Mrs Davey said.