Several senators in Seanad Éireann have sought to ban the advertisement of infant milk formula in media due to their claim that it leads to “concerning practices”. They are seeking amendments to the Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 which would ban the advertising of infant formula online and in media, in a similar way some politicians are seeking to ban the advertising of gambling.

Speaking in the Seanad on Wednesday and outlining the basis of her concerns, Senator Alice Mary Higgins said that Ireland exports one-third of the dairy formula it manufactures here to the Chinese market.

She said: “The breastfeeding rate in China has halved over the past decade. Let us be clear that advertising and commercial communication is designed to increase the market. Its purpose is to increase the usage of a product. This is the nature of advertising and its commercial communication.”

The Senator highlighted that the World Health Organization (WHO) has stated that it believes online advertising and the online promotion of breast milk substitutes and formula for commercial reasons are “undermining a major public health goal”.

Irish exports

In 2016, Bord Bia reported that infant formula produced in Ireland accounts for 10% of the global market and that Irish infant formula exports were valued at €1.5bn for 2015, accounting for 35% of all dairy exports. Of this €1.5bn in exports, the Chinese market accounted for the majority and saw the biggest growth throughout the year.

Ireland filled 10% of the global infant formula market in 2016, according to Bord Bia.

However, this has since changed, with Bord Bia reporting that there was a decline in demand across Asia for specialised infant nutrition in 2021.

Bord Bia said: “This product category declined in Irish value exports by €118m in 2021 versus 2020, reflecting reportedly lower birth rates in China and a move by consumers to an increasing preference for locally produced brands. Indeed, total global Chinese infant formula imports are down approximately 24% for the first half of the year.”

Irish statistics

Senator Higgins said that in Ireland, “6% of persons breastfeed for six months by comparison with the global average, which is 40%”.

“Globally, the ratio of those who breastfeed to those who do not and may use formula is almost 50:50, but Ireland is only at 6%. In Ireland, we have a long tradition of not promoting or supporting breastfeeding in the way it should be,” she said.

Adding to Senator Higgins’ concerns, Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly said that the production and promotion of milk formula is “big business”.

Referencing new mothers, she said the “advertising of this milk” is “about looking at a vulnerable time in someone's life and asking how to make money out of it”.

Senator O’Reilly said that in Ireland, the infant milk formula sector is worth €1bn per year to Irish dairy farmers and processors.

“This is very much behind why we allow the promotion of these products to go ahead,” she said.

Product of high standards

Defending Ireland’s infant formula sector, Fine Gael Senator Tim Lombard said: “As a farmer, I know that farmers do an awful lot of work to make sure that the products that we make are safe and accountable to environmental concerns, but are to the highest possible standards.

“We are all very much aware that breast is best, but the baby formula products that we produce are of the highest possible standard. This House needs to acknowledge that fact during this debate.”

Irish dairy farmers are producing a high standard product, says Senator Tim Lombard. / Donal O' Leary

Senator Lombard said that rather than putting curtailments on the advertisement of infant formula, “this debate must be about lactation and mother and baby groups meeting in communities and not in a hospital setting, which is where they are based at the moment”.

“We need multiple lactation consultants on the road in order to reach mothers and their families. Otherwise, the supports for the families who want to breastfeed their children are not going to be available and that is a core issue in our argument.

“When one considers what this Bill seeks to achieve in terms of tackling issues like gambling and sugary foods, I fundamentally think that having baby formula attached to this legislation does not make sense,” he said.

President concerned

The Seanad debate on the matter of infant formula advertisement follows claims by President Michael D Higgins in February that the marketing of infant formula is “manipulative”.

Speaking alongside his wife Sabina, he said the issue of “intense and manipulative marketing around the use of formula milk for babies” is an issue of “great concern.”

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