NHS bodies are risking babies’ health by accepting money from milk formula companies in breach of World Health Organization rules, an investigation has found.
Nearly a third of local commissioners responsible for allocating NHS cash have breached guidelines such as by accepting payments or sponsorship over the last five years, the survey revealed.
The international code of practice is intended to protect breastfeeding and regulate the often aggressive marketing of breast milk substitutes.
Experts last night said that doctors in NHS Clinical Commissioning Group (CCG) areas which had flouted the rules may be at higher risk of inappropriately recommending branded milk formula.
Many will have attended training events sponsored by formula companies and awash with commercial literature, said Dr Laura de Rooy, a consultant neonatologist at St George’s Hospital, London.
“All those training days are not necessarily providing those healthcare professionals with unbiased information,” she said.
“The other really important point is that if there is advertising of those brands to those healthcare professionals, paediatricians, they are more likely to prescribe those brands to you.
“And so even the advertising that is directed at a scientific audience, a paediatrician audience, can be misleading.”
Conducted by Channel 4’s Dispatches, the investigation revealed that 59 of England’s 195 CCGs had recorded a breach of the code of practice since 2014.
The programme also says it has obtained leaked documents from the marketing agency of Danone, which dominates the UK formula industry with its brands Cow & Gate and Aptamil, revealing a £4 return on investment for every £1 spent on marketing.
Professor Anthony Costello, a former director at WHO, said: “If you’re a company and you want to promote your products, you want to reach the people who are most influential.
“So that will be paediatricians, it will be dieticians, it will be nurses, midwives, health visitors.
“Companies are now right in the NHS and that is extremely concerning.”
Meanwhile Sue Ashmore, Unicef UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative Director, called for stricter legislation, adding: “We need to make sure babies and parents are protected from commercial interests and misleading marketing practices.”
The UK has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the world, with just 34 per cent of babies receiving breast milk at six months of age, compared to 62 per cent in Sweden.
The latest investigation follows a report in the British Medical Journal, published in December, which suggested that the 500 per cent rise in the rate of milk allergies among babies over 10 years is partly due to links between the formula industry and doctors.
The report found that the annual NHS bill for treating such allergies had increased from £81 million to more than £60 million between 2006 and 2016.
A spokesman for the Department of Health and Social Care, said: “Parents have a right to accurate, unbiased advice from healthcare professionals and it is completely unacceptable for health care providers or workers to receive financial incentives of any kind to endorse particular brands.”
The Great Formula Milk Scandal: Dispatches will be broadcast on Channel 4 on March 18 at 8pm.