Richard Walker

It’s time to change the law on infant formula

How does a company that has prided itself on ‘Doing It Right’ for more than 50 years suddenly find itself on the wrong side of the law?

Simply because, last week, Iceland publicly announced that we had cut the price of baby milk to make us the UK’s cheapest supermarket for branded infant formula.

And we did this because of a rising tide of feedback from our customers that they were really struggling to feed their babies and toddlers as the cost-of-living crisis drove the price of formula ever upwards, putting it beyond their reach.

With formula prices inflating by as much as 45% over the last two years, there are well-founded reports of parents feeling compelled to save money by reducing feeding frequency, ignoring ‘best before’ dates, over-diluting powdered infant formula or even trying alternative and unapproved foods like porridge – all of which come with worrying risks to child health.

Now, technically we are allowed to cut the price of infant formula. What the law prohibits us from doing is telling anyone that we have done so. Which makes it pretty hard for us to get the message out to desperate parents that Iceland can now offer big savings on the products they need.

The law also prohibits retailers from allowing formula to be purchased with loyalty points or store gift cards, and from reducing the price of formula to clear stock that is nearing the end of its shelf life. Bizarrely, it has even been interpreted as prohibiting supermarkets from offering free parking to customers who are shopping only for formula. Which seems perverse when there are no similar restrictions applied to the sale of ‘unhealthy’ lines such as alcohol, vapes, fizzy drinks, confectionery or crisps.

Food banks are also prevented by law from stocking baby formula (for 0 – 6 months), thereby denying access to it to those most in need, despite the charity Feed UK and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service arguing strongly that this restriction is doing more harm than good.

At the root of this perfectly well-intentioned piece of legislation – The Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula (England) Regulations 2007 – is the World Health Organisation’s strong recommendation that breastfeeding is far and away the best solution not only for both child health and development, but for maternal health, too.

Every medical expert in the world backs this analysis, and we of course accept it. If you can feed your baby this way, that’s what you should do. We have no desire or intention to encourage the feeding of infants in any other way.

What concerns us is the many people who simply aren’t able to breastfeed and must have access to affordable infant formula. The most obvious examples include adoptive parents, gay couples, and mothers whose ability to lactate has been ended or compromised by medical treatment. Then there is the huge swathe of mothers who do their utmost to breastfeed their child but still need to supplement their own milk with formula, or who need to return to work and are unable to express milk for use while they are away from home.

As a libertarian, I also have sympathy with those who consider all the medical advice and still decide not to breastfeed. We have spent decades hammering home the message about a woman’s right to choose. Women should be in control of their own bodies and lives, not compelled to breastfeed if they do not wish to do so. Why in this one area should we deny them freedom? Parents are capable of making their own life choices, and should be allowed to do so.

We have permanently reduced the price of branded formula – but we have certainly not done this to benefit our business.  In fact we’re now seeing a vastly reduced profit contribution from these lines, despite an uplift in sales. We’ve done it simply to meet the needs of our customers and because I wasn’t prepared to have it on my conscience that we had the power to help them and failed to act.

Unfortunately we have now received complaints from local authorities and the Department of Health insisting that we must stop promoting our new prices or face being fined – at the very time when customers really need to know about the help we are able to offer.

That is why we are now we are calling for a change in the law. A change that will allow retailers to tell the public about the price of formula, and permit customers to buy formula with loyalty points, gift cards or food bank vouchers.

We are also calling for an urgent review by government of the value of Healthy Start vouchers – frozen at £8.50 a week for babies up to one since April 2021. Although parents are allowed to use these vouchers to buy formula, they now do not cover the cost of even the cheapest tub.

We’re not asking for a free-for-all that will undermine the fundamental message that breastfeeding is best. Merely for an adjustment to the rules in the interests of humanity and common sense, to allow retailers to help struggling families in these most testing times. Any announcements and promotions that we or other retailers make should be neutral and factual in tone, simply publicising the price of formula to those customers who need or choose to use it.

If you agree with me, please sign this Metro petition, backed by the charity Feed, calling for a change in the regulations on baby formula and please join me in writing to ministers, MPs and the media to highlight the issues that many parents and babies are currently facing, and the urgent need for change.

Thank you.

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