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Time for Abbott to Come Clean About Its Deceptive Baby Formula Research

Since 1954, the National Institute of Infant Nutrition and The Research Institute of Mother and Child Care have maintained a massive database on whether mothers breastfeed or use formula for their newborns. Even the CDC relied on the data the survey has produced. Turns out neither of those institutions exists, they're both fronts for an Abbott Labs (ABT) marketing survey for Similac, a brand of baby formula.

Now it's time for Abbott to come clean about how it gathers information from consumers before it further tarnishes the reputation of the baby formula business. I say "further" because the formula industry has a lousy history of cynical, deceptive marketing. Abbott was forced to recall Similac last year after insect pieces and beetle larvae were found in some packets. That recall saw pediatric nutritionals sales at Abbott decline 7.5% to $1.2 billion. There is also a class action lawsuit, which Abbott wants dismissed.

Competitor Mead Johnson (MJN) has repeatedly been found lying to moms about the ingredients in its rival formula Enfamil. At least one company sold formula contaminated with melamine in 2008. Formula companies have reduced the size of their packets while increasing the price. Abbott, for instance, recently redesigned its Similac packet so that it looks bigger but actually contains less formula (click image above to enlarge and you'll see the volume difference).

And then, of course, there's the fact that breastfeeding is much better for both mother and child. You won't find much about that on Abbott's Similac site, although you will find a bulletin board titled "Breastfeeding Obstacles & Scheduling Wonders" that makes breastfeeding sound like a nightmare.

Moms have been trying to figure out since 2004 who was behind the survey (see here and here and here), which arrives as a set of forms once new moms get home from the hospital. Do a search for either "National Institute of Infant Nutrition" or "Research Institute of Mother and Child Care" and neither entity has a web site. There is a survey site for NIIN, but it's been shut down.

Abbott has probably been taken by surprise by the backlash against its survey. A spokesperson said:

It is standard practice in consumer market research to either use a third-party supplier or other title where respondents are 'blinded' to the actual research sponsor, she said.
That may be true, but the survey could still have disclosed that it was a piece of commercial research and not an independent scientific inquiry. I suspect that because the survey dates back to the pre-web era, when individual mothers couldn't figure out on their own who the NIIN and RIMCC were, Abbott lulled itself into not thinking about how the survey should be repeated. Just because you've always done something one way doesn't mean you should continue doing it.

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Image by Flickr user The Consumerist, CC.
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