Nestlé claims for SMA infant formula on health worker and public websites

Nestlé took over the SMA brand of formula when it completed its purchase of Pfizer Nutrition/Wyeth in December 2012.

Since that time it appears that the aggressive practices Nestlé is notorious for around the world are being rolled out in the UK.

This includes a series of events Nestlé held around the country in May - July 2013, where it attempted to circumvent the restrictions many health facilities have in place to stop company representatives targeting staff. In these health facilities, companies can only provide information on their products to a designated expert staff member (or a multidisciplinary committee in some regions), who will assess the accuracy and only pass on what is necessary. Nestlé invited health workers to events at hotels, enticing them with speakers on a variety of topics.

Nestlé's events were organised by its Nutrition Representatives and people had to register via the SMA-branded Health Care Professional website. The site promotes SMA formula with the claim it is closer to breastmilk than other brands.

Similar claims were investigated by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) when made in an advertisement to the public. As infant formula cannot be advertised to the public, these advertisements featured the follow-on formula in the SMA range with the slogan 'What's the best milk after Kate's?'.

The ASA ruled (A12-190812): 'the ads misleadingly implied that follow-on milk was the best alternative to breast milk' and 'the ads misleading implied that SMA Follow-on milk was superior to other follow-on milks'.

Baby Milk Action asked Nestlé to respect the ruling, which Nestlé would said it would do. Clearly, it is not.

Nestlé's current site directed at the public is even more blatant in promoting SMA formula as almost identical to breastmilk.

The only difference in the above table appears to be that SMA does not contain 'immune factors'.

Yet this is highly misleading. The ticks shown for both breast milk and SMA formula are not equivalent.

The table entries are:

  • • Protein closer to breast milk (formula does not have the same protein as breast milk)
  • • Fat closer to breast milk (formula does not have the same fat as breast milk)
  • • Carbohydrate - 100% lactose (lactose is the main source of carbohydrate in all milk)
  • • Prebiotic effect like breast milk (breast milk contains over 200 oligosaccharides, Nestlé's claim relates to the addition of α-lactalbumin - see note)
  • • Vitamins and minerals (both are in breast milk and formula, but not at the same levels and not necessarily with the same bioavailability)

Aside from being misleading, this promotion contravenes ASA ruling A12-197524, directed at Pfizer Nutrition over SMA infant formula promotion in an email sent to a mother when her child was four-weeks old. The ASA determined that such promotion constitutes advertising, even though the company argued that the mother had ticked a box indicating she wanted to receive information on infant milks.

The ASA ruling states:

"We told [the company] not to produce marketing communications for infant formula except in a scientific publication or, for the purposes of trade before the retail stage, a publication of which the intended readers were not the general public."
If an email sent to the mother at her request constitutes advertising under the Advertising Code, promotion (particularly misleading promotion) on a website - including one a mother chooses to visit - also constitutes advertising and breaches the provision that it should not contain infant formula advertising.
Members of the public require accurate, independent information, not company promotion aimed at increasing sales by misleadingly equating formula with breastfeeding.
Accurate information is available to health workers to properly inform parents from independent sources, such as the First Steps Nutrition Trust. In its Guide to Infant Milk in the UK, it assesses the claims made for SMA prebiotics as follows:
SMA does not add oligosaccharides to any of their infant or follow-on formula. However, they suggest that enriching formula with α-lactalbumin has been shown to have a prebiotic effect by increasing the development of a Bifidobacteria-dominant flora. This suggestion is supported by a single journal abstract which describes a prospective study carried out by Wyeth, USA, in which 154 healthy term infants were randomised to receive formula enriched with either α-lactalbumin or α-lactalbumin and fructo-oligosaccharide. After eight weeks the faecal flora of both groups were similar to that of infants fed human milk (Bettler and Kullen, 2007). In order for a foodstuff to qualify as a prebiotic, it must induce luminal or systemic effects that are beneficial to the host health (Gibson and Roberfroid, 1995). In this instance, a bifidogenic effect has been observed, but no evidence of beneficial effects to host health have been recorded and therefore it is incorrect to suggest that α-lactalbumin has a prebiotic effect.
Baby Milk Action is reporting the online promotions to the enforcement authorities.