Danone accused of bribing hospitals in China as it targets health workers at London conference

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Press release 18 September 2013

The Chinese state television news service CCTV has broadcast a report this week claiming: "Danone bribes hospitals to push baby milk". The news breaks as Danone targets health workers at the Maternity, Midwifery and Baby Conference in London on 19 September 2013, where it will be promoting its Cow & Gate and Aptamil formula brands. The organisers of the London conference have been asked if they have ethical criteria for exhibitors, but have declined to comment. Click here to watch the CCTV report. In August it was reported that Chinese authorities fined Danone Dumex, the subsidiary operating in China, US$ 28 million for price fixing, alongside other transnational companies.

Click here for details of protests at Danone sponsored events in the UK.

According to CCTV a former Danone Dumex representative in China claimed: "You give money. Every year we worked with the hospitals and gave them money. Hundreds of thousands, there’s a secret agreement." CCTV claims the bribes are paid in the guise of sponsorship.

Posing as a company rep. a reporter called a hospital and was told: "You can sponsor academic activities at the hospital."

A shop owner at a hospital confirmed: "You have to get the nurses to promote for you."

CCTV said it called at the Danone Dumex office, but nobody would come to the door or answer the phone.

Danone sponsors health worker events in the UK, such as a recent legal conference for midwifes and has Cow & Gate and Aptamil stands at the Maternity, Midwifery and Baby Conference in London. It also advertises heavily in some health worker journals, although the Royal College of Midwives recently introduced a policy of refusing advertising from baby milk companies. 

Nestlé and Danone attempt to entice staff to events they organise or sponsor. However, UNICEF Baby Friendly guidelines in the UK state: "All advertising of products covered by the Code should be prohibited within the policies of the institution and company representatives should have only very restricted access to the service or staff. It is suggested that they see the member of staff considered most expert in infant feeding and that she/he then distribute any relevant scientific and factual information to the rest of the staff in an appropriate manner." In some areas reps are only permitted to provide information to a multi-disciplinary expert panels, which decides if any of the information is relevant and substantiated for communicating to staff.

The inclusion of company stands at events such as this and company sponsorship, if that exists, is a calculated attempt by the companies to circumvent these recommendations.

The World Health Assembly has addressed the issue of sponsorship in Resolution 49.15 from 1996 and again in Resolution 58.32 from 2005 where it stated care was needed: "to ensure that financial support and other incentives for programmes and health professionals working in infant and young child health do not create conflict of interest".

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, said:

"It would appear that the organisers of this event are not giving due consideration to the World Health Assembly measures on conflicts of interest. We have won cases at the Advertising Standards Authority proving that claims made for these brands are not substantiated. We recommend that health bodies introduce clear and transparent policies to ensure that health workers receive accurate, independent information on infant feeding to communicate to parents. Allowing companies unfettered access to health workers is irresponsible of the organisers. We hear repeatedly in the UK from parents of health workers recommending a particular Danone brand as the 'best formula', but we have won a case at the ASA showing the company could not substantiate this claim."

Danone jumped to second place in the world baby milk market behind Nestlé in 2007 after taking over the NUMICO brands (Nutricia, Milupa and Cow & Gate and Aptamil). These formulas brands are marketed in ways that systematically violate the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly.

Danone promised Baby Milk Action it would conduct a "root and branch review" of marketing activities of the NUMICO brands following the takeover and did stop some practices, but violations continue and it is particularly aggressive where it competes with Nestlé. This includes Asia and, since December 2012, the UK, following Nestlé's takeover of the SMA brand. 

For further information contact Mike Brady on 07986 736179.