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FDA to Examine Labels on Infant Formula

Andrew McCaul

Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced plans to conduct a study to “assess women’s understanding of and response to various statements on infant formula labels,” like claims that a particular formula “supports brain and eye development.” The Infant Formula Label Statements Experimental Study will “focus on purchase choice, perceived similarity of the formula to breast milk, and perceived likelihood that the formula has certain health benefits.” Basically, it aims to examine consumer response to marketing specifically on infant formula labels—which means the study will not look at the impact of marketing through TV commercials, free formula samples in the mail or at the hospital, brochures in doctor’s offices, etc., as Heidi Green recently pointed out on baby gooroo.
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Supporters of breastfeeding maintain that the marketing messages and tactics of infant formula companies impact how mothers choose to feed their babies, making formula appear on par with breast milk. But the World Health Organization (WHO) states that “breastfeeding is an unequalled way of providing ideal food for the healthy growth and development of infants” and recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding with complementary foods up to 2 years of age or beyond. In order to establish and sustain exclusive breastfeeding for those first six months, WHO and UNICEF recommend that breastfeeding be initiated within the first hour of life, that infants receive only breast milk and no additional food or drink (not even water), that babies breastfeed on demand, and that no bottles or pacifiers be used. Of course, all of that makes no room for formula. And some of that doesn’t fit a lot of women’s lives in the U.S., especially when many women struggle with nursing and must return to full-time work outside of the home just a few months after childbirth, which is one of many reasons why moms may choose to feed their baby formula. Ultimately, the decision as to how to feed one’s baby is a deeply personal one made for any number of reasons, but it’s important for women to have accurate information available when making a choice about breastfeeding versus formula-feeding.
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All of which brings us back to the Infant Formula Label Statements Experimental Study, which will collect feedback from adult women in four categories: expectant mothers, moms of babies less than 12 months old, mothers of children between the ages of 1 and 5, and women of childbearing age who do not have a child younger than 5 years. A sample of 5,000 women selected from an online consumer panel will be shown two sets of two experimental infant formula labels, one of which will be a control label with no claim as to function, and asked to compare them in terms of how it the labels affect their understanding of the parity of formula and breast milk, the health benefits of formula, and which they would be more likely to buy.
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The FDA is currently accepting public comments on the study through May 2, 2011. If you want to tell the FDA that you support this study, you can submit your comment electronically or send written comments to the Division of Dockets Management (HFA-305), Food and Drug Administration, 5630 Fishers Lane, Rm. 1061, Rockville, MD 20852. All comments must refer to Docket No. FDA-2011-N-0098.
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Parents, when you had infants, did marketing messages make you feel like formula was just as good as breast milk?