Appointment of infant-formula executive to health agency questioned

Concerns expressed in Seanad about post in Safefood filled by possibly unsuitable individual

Concerns have been raised about the appointment of an executive from an infant formula manufacturing company to health promotion agency safefoodand the potential impact on efforts to increase breastfeeding rates.

Green Party Senator Pauline O’Reilly called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to find out why the appointment was made and the process involved. She highlighted a report last year in medical journal the Lancet that “large manufacturers of breast milk substitutes have inappropriately positioned themselves as sources of public health expertise”.

The appointment to the advisory committee of the agency that promotes awareness and knowledge of food safety “is concerning because we have unprecedented commitments in our programme for government around breastfeeding and maternal health”, she said.

“We have had a recent announcement of funding for lactation consultants across the country. We cannot give with one hand and take with the other.”


Lowest rates

Ms O'Reilly said she was concerned because Ireland has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.

“The WHO [World Health Organisation] has said breastfeeding is the most appropriate thing a state can put its money behind to promote health. Yet 64 per cent of women initiate breastfeeding when they enter hospital and only 37 per cent leave hospital breastfeeding, a matter of days later,” she said.

“We have to examine why that is. Let’s put money into lactation consultants to support women but let’s also make sure we are appointing the correct people in the correct way to our health-promotion organisations,” she added.

In a statement defending the appointment, Safefood said “all committee members must comply with corporate governance requirements set out by Safefood, which deal with any potential for a conflict of interest.

“Should this occur, members are required to highlight any potential conflict and must step back from any discussions in these areas.”

The agency said “we select members based on the totality of their experience and the breadth of professional expertise they can bring to the Committee. They are not selected to represent their current employer.”

Two of the 12 members of the advisory committee are from the food industry while the remaining 10 are drawn from the fields of diet and health, food science, communications and behaviour change, state and regulatory bodies.

Maternity hospitals

In the Seanad renewed concerns were also raised about the failure to lift restrictions on partners attending maternity hospitals for scan appointments and for all of their pregnant partners’ labour.

Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said "this is a matter that has been allowed to continue for far too long".

She said restrictions were continuing “despite apparent agreement by the Taoiseach, the Minister for Health and the chief medical officer that restrictions on partners attending and accompanying women into hospitals should end or should at least be alleviated”.

Ms Bacik said she had reports at the weekend from women who are in labour and cannot have their partners with them. “It has in some cases led to very distressing experiences for women and it needs to be addressed.”

She called for the Taoiseach and Minister for Health to be contacted for further action on the issue.

Seanad leader Regina Doherty said "we cannot have a prohibition on partners coming to births or into emergency situations. It's simply not on."

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran

Marie O'Halloran is Parliamentary Correspondent of The Irish Times