What is the Code?

‘The Code’ comprises the original WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes adopted in 1981 and all updates to this, in the form of resolutions. These are made every two years or so at the World Health Assembly, the world’s highest health policy setting body. The Resolutions strengthen and clarify the Code. They have the same status as the Code and should be read with it. The Code is also known as ‘the International Code’ and ‘the WHO Code’. It can be found here, and a complete list of resolutions can be found here.



Why does the Code exist?

The Code is an internationally agreed voluntary code of practice, designed to protect breastfeeding by preventing unscrupulous marketing and claims about breastmilk substitutes, including infant formulas, follow-on formulas and any other food or drink, together with feeding bottles and teats, intended for babies and young children.

The Code also sets standards for the labelling and quality of products and for how the law should be implemented and monitored within countries. It calls on governments "to ensure that monitoring the application of the International Code and subsequent relevant resolutions is carried out in a transparent, independent manner, free from commercial influence”. 

Restricting marketing of breastmilk substitutes does not mean that the products cannot be sold, or that scientific and factual information about them cannot be made available. Neither does it restrict parent’s choice. It simply aims to make sure that their decisions are based on full, impartial information, rather than misleading, inaccurate or biased marketing claims.

The underlying rationale for the Code is that the health of babies is so important that the usual rules governing market competition and advertising should not apply to products intended for feeding babies. Therefore, all Governments should legislate to prevent commercial interests from disrupting breastfeeding and thereby harming the health of their populations.



How does UK law compare to the Code?

Only a few of the provisions in the Code are written into regulation in the UK. This makes these regulations significantly weaker than the Code, particularly as they only cover the marketing of infant formula intended for babies under six months old. They do not cover any foods which may be inappropriately marketed for use under six months of age given that the recommended age for the introduction of solids is six months of age, or the numerous commercially produced foods and drinks marketed for babies older than six months. The law therefore permits widespread advertising of breastmilk substitutes with the exception infant formula for babies under six months old.

You can find more information on the Code in the WHO’s FAQ booklet and a complete list of resolutions can be found here.



What would better regulation look like if UK law incorporated the Code

To protect breastfeeding and safeguard infant, young child and maternal health, the Baby Feeding Law Group UK advocates for a strengthening of the UK law to align with the Code. Better regulation would look like this (pending).