WASHINGTON, April 27, 2016 - American dairy organizations, the International Dairy Federation, the U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) Department and others are trying to put the brakes on a proposed World Health Organization guidance they fear will discourage governments, food aid groups, and families around the world from including healthful dairy products in young children’s diets.
The World Health Assembly, the WHO’s parent body, asked in 2012 for new clarification and guidance for world standards to discourage inappropriate promotion of foods for infants and young children (under 3 years old). A technical advisory committee drafted the requested guidance last year, and the WHO executive board posted a proposed draft guidance in January. The board has put it on the World Health Assembly’s May meeting agenda (Item 12.1) for final approval.
But, says John Allan, vice president and international standards expert for the International Dairy Foods Association, WHO is trying to expand the world code on marketing of breast-milk substitutes without taking the time or using the kind of open, transparent public process needed to responsibly revise such important standards. Instead, a quicker guidance process is being used.
In the U.S., the HHS weighed in, too, asking WHO to provide more scientific justification for its recommendations and define some terms more precisely – including “breast-milk substitutes,” since cow milk is a common substitute in the U.S. and elsewhere, and American doctors, for example, recommend cow’s milk for kids older than 1 year.
IDFA and the National Milk Producers Federation called on members of Congress in a letter to insist on “more thorough analysis” by WHO before it proceeds with its “misleading guidance… seeking to discourage parents from feeding toddlers milk and certain dairy products.” Jim Mulhern, NMPF president, called the draft guidance “a de facto criticism of all milk consumption by toddlers,” and said it “flies in the face of all credible, international nutrition research, and would confuse consumers.”
Asked to comment on the American industry’s complaints, Olivia Lawe Davies, WHO representative at the organization’s headquarters in Geneva, said via email that the guidance “lays out recommendations on how foods targeted for consumption by infants and young children should and should not be marketed. It does not make any dietary recommendations at all. To the contrary, it states that foods for infants and young children should be promoted only if they are in line with national dietary guidelines.”
“In no way does the guidance discourage the consumption of milk,” she said. “In fact, WHO recommends milk consumption for older infants and young children who are not being breast fed. However, the guidance clarifies that the marketing of follow-up formula and growing-up milks (are covered by WHO code when they are) targeted for infants and young children.” Thus, she said, “Milk that is marketed as a general family food is not covered by this recommendation.”
But Shawna Morris, NMPF’s vice president for trade policy, points to a rather sweeping paragraph of the guidance that says, in part: “Products that function as breast-milk substitutes should not be promoted. A breast-milk substitute should be understood to include any milks, in either liquid or powdered form, that are marketed for feeding infants and young children up to the age of three years.”
Further, she points this out from the defined “scope” of the document: “This guidance applies to all commercially produced foods that are marketed as being suitable for infants and young children . . .”
Morris says, “The direct read of the language . . . is a fundamental disconnect” with existing WHO, American and other standards around the world that encourage milk as healthful nutrition for kids. While the intent of the document may be to address marketing and promotion issues, “it certainly could be construed as nutritional guidance,” she says. What’s more, she says, its broad language restricting promotion and marketing would block important product information to pediatricians and others who need it.
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