The story of Tesco, baby milk and the EU bogeyman

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Taking care of a baby is no easy task, especially a first baby, or twin babies, or a sick baby. Parents-to-be often find themselves if not abandoning their ideals, adjusting them significantly. This can be an emotional process, and no parenting topic is more likely to elicit emotion than breastfeeding.

Breast is best?

The ‘breast is best‘ message was developed, not by healthcare professionals or pro-breastfeeding parents, but by manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes – commonly known as baby formula, or bottle feeds.

As a marketing ploy it was a stroke of genius. The phrase boldly walked across a metaphorical tightrope by appearing to agree with the experts (breastfeeding has numerous indisputable health, social and financial benefits for both baby and mother) whilst simultaneously undermining that message. After all, most of us are used to not having the best, instead making do with what we’ve got. Bespoke designer clothing is ‘best’ but the vast majority of us wear Primarni rather than Armani. We know that home grown organic carrots are ‘best’ but the value ones are also orange and crunchy and no one seems any worse off for eating them yet.

So quietly and insidiously, the formula companies whispered that ‘best’ was out of reach, that ‘good enough’ was, well, good enough and parents everywhere, especially those without adequate breastfeeding support or those with special needs babies or other similarly challenging circumstances breathed a sigh of relief, because breastfed or bottle fed, it’s the ‘fed’ that is truly crucial.

You’re not good enough!

But that insidious, catchy,  little slogan continuously sloshed around the minds of many mothers, and as parents naturally want what’s best for their children, many couldn’t help but feel guilty or ashamed that they were only ‘good enough’. No matter how adverse the circumstances, no matter how hard they had tried.

And those that had breastfed, that had provided the ‘best’ were perceived as looking down on those that hadn’t, and were shamed for this snobbery, sometimes real, but more often imagined, and thus the baby-feeding cold war began. Bottle feeding families were pitted against breast feeders, often by sensationalist media-types that thrive on conflict. Those afraid of being judged fought an offensive defence against the pro-breastfeeding ‘Breastapo’; an imagined army of rosy cheeked and rosy nippled Earth mothers knitting their own hummus up and down the land.

The divide, like many divides, wasn’t nearly as big as it was depicted. Many breastfeeding mothers also struggled, some with breastfeeding itself, but if not that, then one of the many challenges parents everywhere face.

Baby cold wars

Healthcare professionals sought to bridge the divide, the catchy but damaging ‘breast is best’ was questioned and rejected in favour of the more accurate but less memorable ‘breast milk is biologically normal’.

But healthcare professionals don’t have the marketing might of a profit hungry corporation and in many impoverished countries, breastfeeding can be the difference between life and death.

So, to redress the imbalance the public health branch of the United Nations, known as the World Health Organsation (WHO) developed the International Code for the Marketing of Breast Milk substitutes:


Tesco EU

Excerpt from the WHO Code

Tesco at it again…

It is this code that recently prevented a Tesco store from issuing a parking voucher to a mother whose shopping comprised solely of infant formula. An experience that the mother, Ms Leek, understandably found upsetting, considering the emotional context described above.

Much of this distress could’ve been avoided by a properly trained Tesco staff member suggesting a work around, such as a small additional purchase, or asking a non-driving customer to donate their own superfluous parking entitlement. Most people are intrinsically decent and hate to see other humans upset and will do what they can to help. But this story isn’t really about Tesco, or Ms Leek, or even about formula milk.

It’s about clever marketing, the deliberate spread of disinformation and the British press’ and, indeed, the British government’s schadenfreude, apparent whenever the chance to blame something, anything, on the EU arises.

Blame the EU

Because, while it’s true that the UK’s current adoption of the WHO code is via an EU directive, the EU part is really of no more relevance than any other small, technical point of law.

Post-Brexit, the UK will remain one of the 194 Member States of WHO, just as it will retain membership of the parent body, the United Nations. The UK will still be expected to adhere to the code, we’ll just be obliged to develop the appropriate domestic legislation accordingly.

These rules weren’t set by the mythological EU jobsworth bogeymen to inconvenience, or worse still, traumatise British mothers. They are a worldwide shield protecting new babies from exploitative marketing strategies.

Brexit won’t mean ClubCard points on baby milk and free parking vouchers.

File this one with all the other seemingly innocuous stories that were so easy to spin from clutched straws into anti-Europe gold.

One more banned bendy banana or prohibited prawn cocktail crisp swallowed down from the great spoon of misinformation.

Researching the truth behind the news isn’t just ‘best’ anymore, it has to be our new biological norm.


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