Second WHO report identifies use of social media by formula manufacturers to target expectant mothers

the report describes a number of digital marketing techniques designed to shape the choices new mothers and fathers make about how their babies are fed.

These techniques include the use of apps, virtual support groups or “baby clubs,” paid social media influencers, promotions and contests, and forums or counseling services.

According to the report, formula companies may purchase or collect personal information for the purpose of sending personalized promotions to new expectant mothers and mothers.

“The promotion of commercial milk formulas should have been stopped decades ago”,​ says Dr Francesco Branca, director of the WHO’s Department of Nutrition and Food Safety.

“The fact that formula companies are now using even more powerful and insidious marketing techniques to increase sales is inexcusable and must be stopped.”

The latest report summarizes findings that sampled and analyzed 4 million social media posts about infant feeding published between January and June 2021 using a social listening platform.

These posts reached 2.47 billion people and generated more than 12 million likes, shares or comments.

The report reveals that formula companies post content to their social media accounts around 90 times a day, reaching 229 million users.

This is three times the number of people reached compared to breastfeeding informational messages from non-commercial accounts.

According to the authors of the report, this form of marketing increases purchases of breastmilk substitutes and therefore deters mothers from exclusively breastfeeding as recommended by the WHO.

Report Series

The publication is the second in a series compiled by WHO detailing the exploitative marketing practices employed by the infant formula industry.

Earlier this year, a similarreport​launched jointly with UNICEF, also detailed practices used by the formula industry that it says compromise child nutrition and violate international commitments.

These included unregulated and invasive online targeting, sponsored advice networks and helplines; offered promotions and free gifts; and influencing the training and recommendations of health workers.

ISDI comments

In response to these findings, the International Special Dietary Foods Industries (ISDI), an association representing the maternal, infant and young child nutrition sector, said in February that its members were, “committed to improving nutrition and providing the highest quality products that help meet the nutritional needs of mothers, infants and children.”​ ​

“When breastfeeding is not an option, the only recognized and proven alternatives are scientifically developed and clinically demonstrated breast milk substitutes (BMS), which are manufactured in accordance with internationally recognized standards (Codex Alimentarius) and local regulations.

“The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (WHO Code) covers all forms of marketing, including digital marketing”, add the group.

“ISDI members comply with all laws and regulations of the countries in which they operate and have extensive internal approval and auditing processes in place to ensure that their online and offline content meets all legal, regulatory and nutritional requirements. .‎ ​

“In addition, infant and young child nutrition manufacturers have their own internal and external policy compliance mechanisms.​

“Our members support the efforts of national governments to ensure compliance with all national laws and regulations.”​

Share a common goal

The British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), the representative of the specialist nutrition industry in the UK, echoed similar comments adding, “Manufacturers of infant and young child nutrition strive to actively raise awareness of the principles of the WHO Code and applicable laws through education and training, as well as monitor independent websites to identify regulatory and compliance issues.

“BSNA members share a common goal with the WHO and national governments: that parents receive appropriate and up-to-date information to make informed decisions about the care of their babies.

“We support their efforts to ensure that everyone in the digital landscape complies with national laws and regulations.”

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