The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee recently asked to hear evidence on how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected the food supply. We submitted the following statement:
We are a parent-led organisation that campaigns for compassion, autonomy and safety in infant feeding policy and practice. We have concerns relating to the provision of infant formula during the pandemic and about how this issue has been communicated to parents.
In early–mid March, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and bulk purchasing of essential products, some parents experienced significant difficulties in purchasing infant formula from supermarkets. In response to these challenges, the formula industry, via the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA), issued a statement explaining that there was no reason for concern about stocks of formula in the UK and that efforts were being made to ensure these were distributed to retailers as quickly as possible. They also sought to correct misinformation circulating on social media at the time that suggested parents could get formula by calling formula companies’ care lines or 111. Additionally, we note that the retail sector quickly brought in restrictions on formula purchases to prevent stockpiling of infant formula. We believe this was a necessary step along with similar restrictions on other essential products to prevent stockpiling. However, this policy may not meet the needs of people purchasing formula for more than one baby (e.g. parents of twins/triplets and those purchasing formula for multiple families who are self-isolating).
While the formula industry has provided reassurance on the availability of infant formula, Baby Friendly UK (the organisation that sets infant feeding guidelines for NHS maternity units) has issued guidance that seems to suggest uncertainty about future provisions. It states: ‘we are unsure if supplies are consistently available across all parts of the UK and whether the current situation will change as the Covid-19 outbreak progresses’. Baby Friendly UK’s guidance has been widely shared by maternity and health visiting services.
As a result, we believe parents have been subject to mixed messaging about the availability of this vital food source. We would like public health and healthcare bodies to communicate directly about the situation, any reasons for concern and plans that are in place to ensure consistent future supplies of formula to all parts of the UK and to all families who need it.
We are also concerned about the likely economic effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and what impact these might have on families being able to afford infant formula. A recent report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding and Inequalities highlighted that prior to the pandemic, some families in the UK were struggling to afford infant formula and the detrimental impact of this on babies and families.
At present, Baby Friendly UK guidelines advise that infant formula should not be available at foodbanks. They advise that parents should be directed to health visiting services, the Healthy Start Scheme or in cases of extreme concern to social services safeguarding services, if there is a risk that the baby might not be fed. Unfortunately, community-based healthcare professionals, such as health visitors, are unable to give out infant formula and there can be delays in accessing the Healthy Start scheme. In addition, some vulnerable groups are not eligible for the scheme, e.g. asylum seekers and families with fluctuating income.
Foodbanks report a demand for infant formula, baby food and other essential baby items, and some have expressed a desire to work with local health visiting services to ensure provision of infant formula to families who need it. Unfortunately, Baby Friendly guidelines mean health visitors are precluded from referring families to this foodbank.
It is our experience as parents that these current guidelines do not adequately meet the needs of UK families, the majority of whom will use some formula to feed their babies at some stage. We must ensure a consistent and adequate supply of infant formula to all families who need it. In order to do this, we would like to see two key changes:
- Clear communication with parents from trusted public bodies about confidence in future availability of infant formula and what is being done to ensure continued consistent availability as the pandemic progresses.
- For national and local strategies to integrate relevant healthcare services, retailers, voluntary sector provision (e.g. foodbanks) and the formula industry so they can work collaboratively to ensure that all families can access formula as and when they need it for their babies, with particular attention given to those who are self-isolating and those experiencing poverty.