Abbott Laboratories’ marketing of infant formulas is being probed by a New York City regulator in what the company called an exceedingly broad “fishing expedition” that should be halted.
The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs said it had no complaints from the public about Abbott’s products, but was just “generally concerned” about the advertising claims -- “all of them, apparently,” Abbott said in a court filing Friday asking a judge to halt the probe.
The company said it received a request for information that “covers every infant-formula product in Abbott’s Similac family of brands.” The department also wants to know who was targeted in the company’s “Similac StrongMoms” promotion and seeks the basis for advertising claims that the product provides “complete nutrition” and is “the #1 brand fed in hospitals.”
It would take 47 boxes of paper just to print the names and addresses of the 250,000 people in the StrongMoms program in New York City, Abbott said.
“The Department of Consumer Affairs is investigating a number of manufacturers of infant formula under its authority to enforce the city’s consumer protection law, which prohibits deceptive trade practices and false advertising,” Commissioner Julie Menin said in an e-mailed statement.
Abbott’s Similac products are the “leading infant formula products in the U.S. and are distributed around the globe,” the company said in Friday’s court filing. Marketing claims for the products are reviewed by federal regulators, it said.
Breastfeeding advocates have often criticized formula marketing and promotions such as freebie packages for new moms. Some parenting bloggers describe Similac promotions as attempts to “sabotage” breastfeeding.
The number of hospitals across the country giving formula packets to new mothers has dropped as health officials seek to encourage breastfeeding. In 2012, New York City called on maternity wards to “pledge to end the distribution of promotional formula and materials during the hospital stay and at discharge.”
Federal health officials recommend exclusive breastfeeding for babies until the age of six months. New York City found that only 31 percent of new mothers were exclusively breastfeeding when their babies reached two months, resulting in “excess health-care costs and preventable infant illnesses and death,” according to a fact sheet for the city’s “Latch On NYC” initiative.
Similac’s StrongMoms program offers membership rewards, free formula deliveries and coupons. The promotion also includes a “Baby Journal” smartphone application and provides “tips to get ready for childbirth and breastfeeding.”
As part of the program, Abbott held what it described as an “empowerment summit” in New York in 2013 to combat social judgment faced by mothers for “parenting approaches, work and infant feeding.”
In lieu of hospital giveaways, “this is the type of marketing that the formula companies are pushing,” said Marsha Walker of the Massachusetts-based National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy. “It’s all about establishing a relationship with the customer. The bottom line is they want to sell a product.”
In 2011, the U.S. Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding advising “that the marketing of infant formula is conducted in a way that minimizes its negative impacts on exclusive breastfeeding.”
The case is In the Matter of The Application of Abbott Laboratories, 158164-2015, Supreme Court of the State of New York (Manhattan).