Health bureau to probe milk powder bribe claim

Updated: 2013-09-18 01:04

By Shan Juan and Wang Qingyun in Beijing and Zhang Min in Tianjin (China Daily)

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The Tianjin health bureau pledged at a meeting on Tuesday to investigate an allegation that French company Danone bribed hospital staff to give its milk powder to newborn babies.

China Central Television reported on Monday that Danone, which markets its infant formula under the brand Dumex, gave kickbacks to medical staff at Tianjin Central Hospital of Obstetrics and Gynecology to feed newborn babies its infant formula products, so the babies would develop a taste for the product.

The report showed a list of names of medical workers in a number of hospitals in Tianjin who it claimed had taken money from Dumex between January and July. The alleged payments varied from several hundred yuan to 10,000 yuan ($1,633).

Such improper practices, if substantiated, would be redressed and strictly prohibited, said officials with the Tianjin health bureau at the meeting.

"The bureau has asked local hospitals to investigate," an official from the health bureau, who declined to be named, told China Daily on Tuesday.

"We will apply serious punishment to those medical staff and hospitals found taking commercial bribes."

Companies are not allowed to give samples or products of infant formula to hospitals or offer them money or other inducements to promote their products, according to the Administrative Measures for Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes issued in 1995.

According to the Tianjin health bureau official, it is reasonable for maternity hospitals to provide baby formula products to women who cannot breastfeed due to medical reasons or those who do not have enough breast milk, but the use of the products is not compulsory.

Dumex China said in a statement on Monday afternoon that it "pays great attention to and is extremely shocked by the CCTV report" and "will immediately launch an investigation into it".

"Dumex Baby Food Co Ltd strictly adheres to Chinese laws and regulations, including Administrative Measures for Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. We have set up a strict management system, including severe punitive measures against all violations," the statement said.

Zhang Shuyi, an assistant researcher at the Capital Institute of Pediatrics, a children's hospital in Beijing, said health authorities should correct such practices at once.

International guidelines say a newborn should be brought to the mother for the first breastfeeding session within one hour of delivery, helping the baby's adherence to breastfeeding.

"But they were not so well implemented due to commercial reasons," Zhang said.

The latest survey conducted by the national health authority in 2008 said only 40 percent of maternity hospitals on the mainland follow that guideline.

The health authority also reported a breastfeeding rate of 24.8 percent, far below that of neighboring countries such as Mongolia and Vietnam, which averaged more than 80 percent.

Zhang Yu, a resident of Tianjin who is three months pregnant, said it's common for companies to promote infant formula at medical institutions.

"One time, I saw the hospital where I went for a prenatal checkup give each expecting mother a small can of infant formula," she said. "Pregnant women can hardly take control of anything in the process up to and including giving birth. But I will choose to give birth in these hospitals. They are more experienced in helping women give birth."