NEW DELHI (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The Indian government said on Thursday it would investigate allegations by charities that multinational corporations Nestle, Heinz and Abbott were breaking the law by promoting milk formula and infant cereals and undermining efforts to boost breastfeeding in the country.
Two charities - the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) and International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) - say the three companies are using Indian websites to advertise and promote their baby milk and food products, which is illegal under the Infant Milk Substitutes Act, the IMS Act.
A senior government official said authorities were concerned about the allegations, which were made at the start of World Breastfeeding Week, and would investigate.
"BPNI is an authorised agency to monitor the violation of the IMS Act," Dr Shreeranjan, joint secretary of the ministry of women and child development, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation. "If what they are saying is on merit, we will definitely support them and seek to take action."
The World Health Organization (WHO) - which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for babies up to six months old - says formula is not as healthy as breast milk and that there are risks of illnesses such as diarrhoea from using unsafe water.
Child malnutrition can also result from over-diluting formula to "stretch" supplies, it said.
India has one of the highest child malnutrition rates in the world, around 42 percent of Indian children under five being underweight.
"Mothers are often inundated with incorrect and biased information both directly, through advertising, health claims, information packs and sales representatives, and indirectly through the public health system," the WHO said in a statement earlier this week in which it called for countries to do more to support breastfeeding.
India was one of only 37 countries which enacted legislation after the World Health Assembly in 1974 urged member states to review sales promotion activities on baby foods and introduce laws on advertisements of such products.
The IMS Act prohibits all kinds of promotion of baby milk formula and cereals - including advertising, inducements, and sponsoring seminars and other events for doctors or medical associations.
The law also stipulates that the labelling of all baby food products shall follow certain criteria, and that the products should not be promoted for children below two years of age.
Both the BPNI and the IBFAN say research conducted over the last three months shows that Heinz, Nestle and Abbott are using Indian internet shopping websites such as babyoye.com, healthkart.com and firstcry.com to promote their products in the electronic media.
"India has one of the most comprehensive laws in the world when it comes to outlawing the promotion of formula milk and infant foods for children below two years old," said Dr. Arun Gupta, IBFAN's Asia coordinator.
"But 21 years since it was enacted, it is clear that the law is being blatantly violated by big corporates who are misleading mothers."
When contacted by Thomson Reuters Foundation, the three companies said the allegations against them were incorrect.
"Nestle India does not have any contract and/or commercial relationship with any external websites for its infant nutrition products and we do not supply to them," Nestle India said in a statement emailed to the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We sell to distributors and we educate them about the IMS Code and the importance of complying with it. At the same time E-commerce websites are like retail stores and the IMS Code does not restrict them from indicating the available products."
Abbott said that while it sells its products to a number of different channels and distributors, all are legally obliged to abide by the law.
Babyoye.com, which sells both Nestle and Abbott products for babies and infants and promotes health claims on its site, said it sourced products directly from the brands or their authorised partners.
"For sensitive products associated with baby feeding we make it a point to ensure that we do not promote them in any of our campaigns. All feeding products pages have an explicit statement promoting breast-feeding," said a statement from babyoye.com's CEO Sanjay Nadkarni.
Other websites mentioned by charities, healthkart.com and firstcry.com - which offers promotions on Heinz products - had not responded to Thomson Reuters Foundation requests for information by the time of publication.
Heinz's Vice President for Corporate Affairs Mohan V denied the allegations against the company, saying that Heinz neither manufactured nor sold infant food products in India.
He suggested that the products, which were made in England, were being "smuggled" into India and sold to the websites by a third party.
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