The Business Herald’s markets and banking reporter.

Infant milk formula firm slammed over claims

Fernbaby is majority owned by Chinese businessman Tianxi Shao. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Fernbaby is majority owned by Chinese businessman Tianxi Shao. Photo / Brett Phibbs

Infant formula brand Fernbaby is under fire for questionable marketing claims, including a testimonial on its website that suggests the product cured a baby's asthma and bronchitis.

The Auckland company made headlines in 2012 when its sponsorship of the Vodafone Warriors prompted criticism from breastfeeding groups that it sent the wrong message to the community.

Fernbaby's website says it remains a sponsor of the team, but a Warriors spokesman confirmed the sponsorship had ended.

The website also features a testimonial from "Gina".

It states that her daughter Cleo had battled severe asthma and bronchitis since she was 6 weeks old, resulting in her being hospitalised on a number of occasions.

"For 5 weeks with Fernbaby my daughter has not had a single wheeze and her three asthma inhalers are lying untouched on the kitchen bench," it says.

Jan Carey, chief executive of the Infant Nutritional Council, whose members include major formula manufacturers such as Fonterra and Synlait, slammed the testimonial.

"Infant formula companies have a responsibility because they are providing a sole source of nutrition for the most vulnerable in the population and one mother's anecdote is not scientific evidence and it's just not appropriate to put a statement like this on their website," Carey said.

She said Fernbaby was not a member of the council.

"I will certainly be taking this to the Ministry of Health and I'll certainly mention it to Fernbaby as well."

Yesterday, Fernbaby spokesman John McCaulay said the company would "update" the information on its website.

"In the interim we are taking the website down to make the appropriate deletions," he said. "Our sponsorship of the Warriors expired in 2014 and the updates will reflect this."

The website was still active at 5pm yesterday.

Antoinette Laird, head of external relations at supermarket operator Foodstuffs, said Fernbaby formula had recently been sold in New World stores in Queen St, Clendon, Birkenhead and Botany, as well as Pak'n Save Lincoln Rd.

The brand is also stocked by some FreshChoice and SuperValue supermarkets, which are part of Countdown operator Progressive Enterprises' stable.

Fernbaby, whose products are manufactured externally by New Zealand-based contract manufacturers, is majority owned by Chinese businessman Tianxi Shao, according to Companies Office records.

In 2012, Tianxi told the Business Herald the company was aiming to export 80,000 to 100,000 cans of formula a month to China.

Many New Zealand-based infant formula brands were put out of business by strict Chinese regulations that came into force in 2014.

But McCaulay said Fernbaby remained licensed for export to China and was continuing to sell there.

Andrew Zhu, an honorary research fellow at the University of Auckland's department of marketing, said Fernbaby's claims could damage New Zealand's brand image in China.

"If you want to make a valid proposition to consumers it needs to be up-to-date and accurate," Zhu said.

According to a translation, Fernbaby's Chinese language website cites New World as the source of a claim that the brand is enjoying a sales growth rate 10 per cent higher than other formula products.

Laird said this was incorrect.

"Our data shows minimal sales in a small number of stores," she said.

"Foodstuffs North Island was never approached to approve the use of its brands on the Fernbaby website and as such we have made contact with Fernbaby and requested all references to our brands be removed from the site."

Foodstuffs was also uncomfortable with the testimonial, Laird said.

"Foodstuffs does not support unsubstantiated health claims such as those made on the Fernbaby website."

- NZ Herald

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