Health Ministry calls for immediate action against Abbott, Danone over alleged violation of IMS Act
New Delhi: In a major setback to drug giant, Abbott, and international food major Danone; the Union Health Ministry has pulled the baby food makers and directed the Women and Child Development Ministry to take immediate necessary action against the companies for allegedly violating the Infant Milk Substitute (IMS) Act.
This came following a complaint moved by NGO Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) alleging that the companies violated the law that protects, promotes and supports breastfeeding in India.
As per Section 9(2) of IMS Act, no producer, supplier or distributor of IMS "shall offer or give any contribution or pecuniary benefit to a health worker or any health workers' association, including the funding of seminar, meeting, conferences, educational course, contest, fellowship, research work or sponsorship".
However, a letter dated August 14 moved by BPNI, informed the authority about webinars organized by the Indian Academy of Paediatrics (IAP)and the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI) with sponsorship from the infant milk substitute and infant food manufacturing companies.
Based on the complaint by BPNI, a body that has been notified by the ministry of women and child development to monitor compliance of the Act, the Secretary, Rajesh Bhushan, the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare (MoHFW) wrote to the women and child development (WCD) secretary on August 18 pointing out the relevant provisions of the act and asking for the issue to be examined and instructions to be issued for immediate action.
Last year, the NGO had also flagged against Swiss food giant, Nestle that fell under the Government's lens for allegedly sponsoring research in five Indian hospitals and conducting clinical trials on 75 premature infants in violation of Infant Milk Substitutes(IMS) Act.
In its fresh complaint letter, BPNI has accused both Abbott and Danone of sponsoring online seminars for doctors, contradicting Section 9(2) of the IMS Act, which prohibits direct and indirect sponsorship of health workers by baby product manufacturers. It attached eight posters promoting the sponsored webinars, of which seven were organized by Abbott and one by Danone, dated between 23 May and 8 August.
Some of the topics for the webinars "sponsored" by Abbott were 'lactose intolerance in pediatric practice', 'digital initiatives to enhance the way to deliver neonatal care' and 'pediatrics knowledge enhancement by experts,' claimed BPNI.
The one "sponsored" by Danone was on 'Nutrition First for First 1000 Days', organized by the Federation of Obstetric and Gynaecological Societies of India (FOGSI), a federation of 259 societies with over 38,000 individual members.
Commenting on the accusations, both Abbott and Danone denied any wrongdoings.
A spokesperson of Abbott told The Print, "We're committed to advancing and elevating standards of medical science and we partner with healthcare professionals to support the dissemination of scientific knowledge to meet the evolving needs of people in India, including the nutritional needs of children. All webinars mentioned in the letter are in compliance with applicable laws including the IMS Act."
A spokesperson for the company stated, "No infant formula products were discussed or showcased in this webinar. At Danone, we implement and enforce strict policies to ensure compliant marketing practices and would like to reiterate that we have not violated the IMS Act by supporting the recent FOGSI webinar on 'Nutrition First for First 1000 Days'."
The spokesperson added, "This was a scientific forum for gynecologists with independent medical experts, to enhance their knowledge. Danone supports the WHO guidelines and public health recommendations which call for exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond."
In January 2020 as well, BPNI filed against the companies, accusing Danone of "making incorrect claims about breastfeeding" and Abbott Nutrition of "organizing a program at an upscale restaurant to promote its products".