Press IndexPARENTS taking their babies to be weighed at a busy London clinic yesterday were not sure what to make of the formula baby milk scare, writes Claire White.
Most said they were concerned but felt helpless in the face of the Government's refusal to release details about which of the nine brands had been found to contain harmful chemicals.
Several mothers at the Newby Place Health Centre, Poplar, said they would wean their offspring off the baby milk earlier than planned because of the news that it could contain phthalates, which have been linked with impaired fertility. Reassurance from the Department of Health that there was no cause for alarm had been taken on board, but doubts remained.
Stella Oladinni, 31, said: "They should name the brands, otherwise they're treating the parents like children. People do have the right to make an informed decision for themselves." She said she was not especially worried about the risks to her nine-month-old son Ashley, but until the full picture emerged she could not be confident that she was acting in his best interests. "I wouldn't necessarily stop using the milk all of a sudden; the damage will have already been done in Ashley's case. I would just like to be trusted with the full facts," she added.
She would not be taking 13-month-old Nathan off his brand of powdered milk until firm evidence emerged of any danger.
For others, the emergence of the Ministry of Agriculture's baby milk test results so soon after the CJD/mad cow disease uproar was just one more worry to add to the rest. "If I was to get concerned about all the food scares in the world we wouldn't be eating anything," said Mandy Sen, 28.
She said she would not be taking 13-month-old Nathan off his brand of powdered milk until firm evidence emerged of any danger.
Lillian Hatta, 25, planned to ask the health visitor's advice about whether to stop her 14-month-old daughter Alexis drinking it. She said: "If I don't give her milk what do I give her? Do I change to another brand or do I carry on as normal? I don't know what to think." The health visitor she was waiting to see, Mary Creedon, was unable to provide all the answers. "As far as I know the levels are safe and won't affect the baby. If we do get any further information we'll pass it on to parents straight away," she said.
A primary care manager, Marion Whyte, was on the telephone as soon as she arrived at the clinic yesterday morning, preparing health visitors who might be deluged with questions from anxious parents.
She also rang colleagues at Tower Hamlets Health Authority to see if more information was available. But she was none the wiser by the time the clinic opened. She said: "We haven't taken any of the brands off our shelves. How can we when we don't know which ones are among the nine?"
LEADING formula milk manufacturers are adamant that their products are safe and that mothers should not be panicked into changing the way they feed their babies. This is how they responded to the question of parents' anxieties.
Heinz: "Farley's Infant Milks are completely safe and mothers can continue to have complete confidence in using them as a sole source of infant nutrition. The survey has shown the presence of very low levels of phthalates in the food chain and in infant formulas.
These levels are well within the safety limits and do not represent a risk to human infants. No comparative study was carried out on breast milk."
Milupa: "We are advising mothers to continue using infant formulas and not to switch brands. They are all safe. Phthalates are found in cow's milk, meat and dairy products as well as infant formulae.
The levels are well below the safety limits, which are themselves extremely cautious. That means that if the phthalates even reached the safety levels, which they do not, they would still be 100 times less than levels that could give cause for concern."
"All the brands tested were well within the Government's permitted daily tolerance limits, and are a hundred-fold below the point at which there might be a safety question. There is absolutely no cause for concern. We are urgently investigating the source of the phthalates and until there is further information we see no point in identifying the brand names and their results."
"Our investigations so far have shown that packaging used in Cow & Gate formulas are free of phthalate but work is continuing in the UK and Nutricia Europe to identify other potential sources. Cow & Gate assure parents that Cow & Gate infant formulas are safe to use. They should contine to feed their infants as usual as it is important that infants receive proper nutrition."
Dietary experts say that there are no other products that women can use to feed their babies other than the infant feed formulae, apart from breast milk. Soya infant milk is not an alternative. Cow's milk is not suitable and breast feeding cannot suddenly be re-introduced by women who have stopped.
ANXIOUS mothers sought medical advice yesterday following reports that baby milks contained chemicals capable of producing infertility in male rats, writes Celia Hall.
Helena Charlton, secretary of the Infant and Dietetic Foods Association, which represents the manufacturers, is co-ordinating a meeting today between producers of baby milk and government officials. She said yesterday: "We are looking for an open discussion. Representatives from the leading makers of infant formulas will be at the meeting. We have to discuss the issue further. We will raise a number of points."
Miss Charlton said that manufacturers were not naming brands because the results of the research were complicated. Some of the research had mixed comparable formulae together before analysis, "to save costs", she said.
"Levels of individual phthalates in infant formulas do not exceed safety limits," she said. "Dietary intakes are below the Tolerable Daily Intakes set by the EC Scientific Committee for Food which itself includes a 100-fold safety factor.
"We need to re-assess the impact on our consumers. We want to know what further steps are being taken to release information and what research will be undertaken."
ALL brands of formula baby milk may contain potentially harmful chemicals, it emerged yesterday, as the Department of Health insisted there was no cause for alarm.
The Ministry of Agriculture tested nine leading brands of formula and found levels of phthalates, chemicals linked with impaired fertility, in all. The results, published in the ministry's Food Safety Bulletin in March, were not widely circulated until last weekend. A MAFF spokesman said yesterday that the nine tested were a "representative sample". There was no point in naming the manufacturers, he said, as there could well be traces of phthalates (chemicals widely used to soften plastic) in other products on the market. "It is not the case that these nine contain it and the others are safe. The likelihood is that it is common to all baby milks."
The Government repeated yesterday that the amount of the chemical detected was within permitted safe levels, posing no danger to health. Dr Jeremy Metters, the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, said yesterday: "The Department of Health has seen the papers and there is no cause for alarm. Mothers should continue to use the infant formula that they have been feeding their babies."
Milupa, one of the main manufacturers, said that not even the companies had been informed as to whether their brands were among the nine. Niamh Rice, Milupa's scientific director, said the debate about naming brands was misplaced. "Phthalates are present in cow's milk, so it is unlikely that you could produce a formula without some detectable level of it. "The issue is whether the levels are within safe limits, which they are, and whether anything can be done to reduce them further. MAFF should clarify this rather than allowing this witchhunt about which brands are affected. There is no formula that is better or worse than any other."
"I am saying to people: Do not be scared about it because there is no need to take any action - if there was I would tell you"
In tests, by the Medical Research Council, levels of phthalates similar to those found in the baby milks damaged the testicles of baby rats and reduced their sperm counts. Baby milk manufacturers are investigating possible sources of the chemicals, such as packaging, but point out that they are present in low levels in the environment and may be found in water.
Tim Boswell, the Agriculture Minister, whose department is responsible for information on food safety, told Radio 4's Today programme that he did not believe it necessary to publish the names of the nine brands. "I am saying to people: Do not be scared about it because there is no need to take any action - if there was I would tell you," he said. This is not a risk situation. It is undesirable. We are dealing with it."
Mr Boswell conceded that levels of phthalates were higher than ministers would like, but said that they were below those recognised as safe by the European Union scientific committee for food and by the Department of Health. "We do not think there is a risk in the normal sense of that word for babies, for their parents and for the general public," he said.
Gavin Strang, Labour spokesman on agriculture and food, said: "Why should we first learn about this in a Sunday newspaper? And, as for refusing now to name the brands at risk, that is utterly indefensible." The Maternity Alliance, a pressure group, asked the Government to supply phthalate-free milk to baby clinics. A spokesman for the Infant and Dietetic Foods Association said: "There is no cause for concern."
The decision left mothers unable to tell whether the brand they are feeding their babies could be harmful, or which brands might be safer. The British Medical Association said mothers had the right to know. The Consumers' Association accused the Government of putting manufacturers' interests ahead of customers' and Labour condemned what it called a Government cover-up.
The row was sparked by a ministry statement saying scientists had found phthalates, chemicals used to soften plastics, in nine brands of baby formula milk. They have been suggested as a possible cause of falling sperm counts in men and rising levels of testicular abnormalities in children. The ministry refused to name the brands on the grounds that there was no proven risk of harm and that the information was "commercially sensitive".
A spokesman admitted that the levels were slightly higher than those permitted by the ministry. These would now be reviewed. He added: "There is no cause for mothers to be alarmed for their babies because permitted levels of the chemicals have a wide safety margin." The tolerable daily intake of phthalates had been fixed at 100 times less than the lowest level at which they were thought to be potentially harmful. The ministry had raised the issue with producers and packaging firms and had asked them to find the source of the chemicals.
He said that accusations of secrecy were disproved by the ministry publishing information about the concern at levels of phthalates in its Food Safety Bulletin in March. Copies were sent to consumer groups.
"The Government has put the interests of consumers behind that of producers. This is yet more evidence of the urgent need for an independent food agency"
Tests by the Medical Research Council last year found that similar levels of phthalates to those in the baby milks damaged the testicles and reduced sperm counts of baby rats. A spokesman said: "This is obviously something to be concerned about, but the research is incomplete. Essentially, our work was in animals. There is, as yet, no evidence that the same thing applies to humans."
Scientists estimate that new-born babies would receive an average of 0.13 milligrams of phthalates a day for every kilogram of their body weight. This is just above the lowest level at which one of the phthalates affected rats.
Helena Charlton, spokesman for the Infant and Dietetic Foods Association, said: "We do not believe it is a case for alarm. "These chemicals are widely present in the environment. No one knows how they got into baby milk products. We are investigating every stage of manufacture and packaging to find out."
Diana McRea, head of food research for the Consumers Association, said: "The Government has put the interests of consumers behind that of producers. This is yet more evidence of the urgent need for an independent food agency."
Dr John Chisholm, deputy chairman of the British Medical Association's GPs committee, said mothers would find the lack of information "very frightening. They have a right to know. "Doctors, nurses, midwives and health visitors have no better information. This is another example of the Ministry handling things in a way which places the public and health professionals in difficulty."
He said he would be using the BMA's connections to press for the Department of Health to issue immediate information to doctors. He particularly wanted the names of brands with high levels of phthalates and those with lower or none. "It is hard enough bringing up children without scares like this. People should be in a position to make judgments."
A spokesman for the Department of Health said no advance warning had been issued to doctors because the Ministry of Agriculture did not consider there was any danger. Nigel Griffiths, shadow consumer affairs minister, accused the Government of ignoring consumers and pandering to producers.