Cambodia: Where enforcement is lacking, whistle-blowing yields results

In October last year, IBFAN-ICDC blew the whistle against blatant violations of the Cambodian Law (Sub-Decree on Marketing of Products for Infants and Young Child Feeding, also known as Sub-Decree 133) that gives effect to the Code but remains largely unenforced. Under Sub-Decree 133, promotion of infant and young child feeding products at point-of-sale and healthcare facilities are not allowed. Thanks to reports from an avid volunteer monitor in Cambodia, two articles “Watchdog calls out firm for marketing formula and WHO alerted to potential NZ infant formula promotion breach in Cambodia came out in the media that highlighted how promotion practices by Bibere violated the International Code and the Cambodian Law.

In August this year, IBFAN-ICDC received another report about advertising and free samples of Dumex infant formula products (manufactured by Danone) at a health facility in Phnom Penh (link). We were appalled that blatant violations are still occurring in a country where not only is there a Law that forbids such promotion but a recently-established Oversight Board to monitor violations. The monitor lodged a complaint with the Oversight Board while IBFAN-ICDC contacted the Danone’s head office to question their promotional practice in Cambodia.  ICDC also alerted the Phnom Penh Post and a journalist was assigned to investigate. The swift coordination of actions yielded visible results. The regulators inspected the health facility and were able to cause all violations to be removed.

A few days later, the Phnom Penh Post published an article “Formula marketers accused of skating laws that encourage breastfeeding” (link) that exposed promotional activities of infant feeding products in hospitals in Cambodia. The article carried a statement from ICDC’s Legal Advisor, Yeong Joo Kean, who denounced the practice of giving companies access to mothers in hospitals as it gives the harmful perception that certain commercial food products are endorsed by the hospitals. She said Cambodian authorities need to act to stop companies from treating the country as a lawless playground.

Contrary to evidence of the photos provided by the monitor and a confirmation email sent by another development worker, the hospital denied there was ever any formula promotion while Danone defended the practices as being allowable under the Cambodian Law.  Whatever position these Code violators chose to take, the events as they unfolded shows how important Code monitoring is.  The health facility changed its practice and Danone knows it is being watched and will hopefully be more restrained in its marketing conduct in future.