On 18 October, Union health Secretary Rajesh Bhushan received an unusual letter. It was a complaint penned by an employee of Nutricia International, the Indian arm of French food-products conglomerate Danone. The employee, one of 216 sales executives tasked with pushing the company’s infant milk substitutes and baby food, accused Danone India of a host of illegal and unethical practices in order to garner better sales in the baby food category.

Danone had, according to the letter, sponsored overseas trips for doctors under the garb of an education grant, hosted liquor-fuelled parties for them, arranged for their transport, and even offered them financial inducements and gifts. If true, Danone would be in blatant contravention of India’s Infant Milk Substitutes (IMS) Act. The Act prohibits companies involved in manufacturing baby milk formula and food for babies upto two years of age from indulging in promotional activities.

The allegations against Danone are damning. However, with India accounting for nearly 20% nearly 20% UNICEF Key Data-India Read more of global child births annually, the baby food market is both lucrative and cut-throat, with competitors looking to gain market share by any means necessary. Indeed, between January 2019 and May 2021, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) received 33 complaints about violations of the IMS Act. That’s more than one complaint a month. The alleged offenders included baby food manufacturers such as Nestle, Abbott, Mead Johnson, Danone, and Amul, but also extended to Apollo Pharmacy, Amazon, and even YouTube.

Strict nos

Promotional activities prohibited by the IMS Act include the distribution of free infant food samples and feeding bottles or offering discounts on them. Pictures of cartoons or chubby babies on food tins as well as having special display shelves in pharmacies and supermarkets are also disallowed.

Officials responsible for enforcing the IMS Act told The Ken that the charges against Danone are being investigated. Violation of the Act is a cognisable offence, punishable by a penalty and/or a jail term of 3-6 months. In the past, however, MoHFW has done little more than issue warning letters to alleged offenders. “The government has all the wherewithal to investigate as well as file prosecution if the evidence so demands,” says Dr Arun Gupta, central coordinator of non-profit Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI). So far, he says, the central government hasn’t shown interest in prosecuting alleged IMS Act violations.

This lax regulation has seen the sales of infant milk substitutes in India spike from 26,100 tonnes in 2015 to 30,000 tonnes in 2020, according to data from market research firm Euromonitor. In the same timeframe, sales of packaged prepared, dried, and other baby food meant to complement milk after six months of age also increased—from 37,100 tonnes to 44,400 tonnes.

AUTHOR

Maitri Porecha

Maitri writes about everything health for The Ken. For close to 10 years now, she has navigated hospital corridors in her search for a good story. In a past life, when she was not a journalist, she used to teach French at her neighbourhood school. Also an avid fan of forensics, she is always up for decoding mysteries in her free time.

View Full Profile

Enter your email address to read this story

To read this, you’ll need to register for a free account which will also give you access to our stories and newsletters