A bill aimed at tightening up regulations around the marketing of baby formula milk has passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons.
MPs gave their unanimous backing to SNP MP Alison Thewliss, whose bill intends to prevent parents being confused by potentially misleading claims.
Ms Thewliss wants more independent testing to ensure that “what is said on the tin is actually in the tin”.
She will now take her bill forward for a second reading in parliament.
SNP MP Alison Thewliss has said many of the health claims made by formula milk producers were based on the company’s own research.
Her bill would also close a loophole around advertising formula milk in medical journals.
The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), which represents formula milk producers, says the content of infant formula is tightly regulated based on scientific advice from experts in the European Food Safety Authority, with the contents “clearly declared, as required by law, on the pack”.
Women in the UK are advised to feed their baby exclusively on breast milk for the first six months if possible, and then a combination of breast milk and other foods.
But an international study published in January suggested breastfeeding rates in the UK were the lowest in the world.
It is currently illegal to promote breast milk substitutes intended for babies under six months old, but adverts for products intended for older babies such as follow on milk are allowed.
Ms Thewliss told the BBC’s Good Morning Scotland programme that this had resulted in formula companies switching their focus to so-called follow on formulas and toddler milks.
However, the World Health Organisation says there is no need for follow on formulas, and the NHS agrees that babies can drink first milk until they are 12 months old, after which they can drink cow’s milk.
Ms Thewliss also said evidence suggested that advertising confused parents about the different ages and stages for formula, and the merits of those formulas.
And she said product research by Mintel had indicated that parents were choosing formula milk on the basis of brand alone.
What does NHS Scotland say about about baby milk?
“If you are formula feeding, first milk is the only food your baby needs for the first six months of life. There are different brands of infant formula but there is no real difference between them.
No one brand is recommended over another. Speak to your health visitor if you are not sure.
Other formulas are also available for babies aged six months and over, such as ‘follow-on formula’, ‘toddler formula’ and ‘growing up milk’. There is no need to switch to any of these formulas – babies can drink first milks until they are one year old.
Cow’s milk is not suitable for babies as their main drink until the age of one – it does not have the right mix of nutrients. It can be used in cooking from the age of six months.”
Ms Thewliss, whose bill would need to win government support in order to become law, said more independent information would allow parents to make a more informed choice.
She said: “As an example, there’s been a trend towards putting probiotics into formula milk and there’s no evidence really to suggest that is necessary for babies at all.
“So for parents, they might read that on the packaging and might think that’s an interesting thing, but they can’t actually get any independent information about whether or not that is something that is of value to your baby.
“So what i would like to see is a good deal more independent verification and testing of formula to make sure first of all what is said on the tin is actually in the tin, and that the health claims that are being made are actually valid.”
‘Give parents reassurance’
Ms Thewliss said formula companies were doing their own research, which she said was not peer reviewed or independently verified, and then using that research to promote their own products.
She said it was often left to charities to carry out independent research – with formula companies often reluctant to tell them what is in their products.
Ms Thewliss said it would be “very helpful” for governments to carry out own research into benefits and otherwise of formula milk.
The Glasgow Central MP said: “Parents are choosing these for the very youngest babies, and they need to have confidence that what they are giving is correct.
“Recently there was a case where there was too much protein in a formula and it had to be withdrawn from the market, but that was done after it had already been sold to parents.
“I think if you were able to independently verify that and check it that would be very useful indeed and give parents that reassurance that what they are choosing is good stuff”.