No risk to 4 month old babies eating cereal-based foods, says EFSA

By Jane Byrne

- Last updated on GMT

The introduction of complementary food such as processed cereal-based foods into the diet of healthy term infants in the EU between the age of four and six months is safe and does not pose a risk for adverse health effects, claims the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

The opinion from EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) was generated on the basis of a request from the European Commission.

The Panel states that, on the basis of present knowledge, there is no risk involved in weaning babies onto foods such as those that are cereal based in the short-term, including infections, retarded or excessive weight gain, or possible long-term effects such as allergy and obesity.

It said that it evaluated studies in breast-fed healthy infants born at term for indicators of an appropriate age at which to introduce complementary food irrespective of existing recommendations on breast-feeding duration and on exclusivity of breast-feeding.

And, the Panel said that the data in question was from developed countries.

“Exclusive breast-feeding is nutritionally adequate up to 6 months for the majority of infants, while some infants may need complementary foods before 6 months (but not before the age of 4 months) in addition to breast-feeding to support optimal growth and development,” ​states the Opinion.

In addition, claims the Panel, presently available data on the risk of celiac disease and type 1 diabetes mellitus support also the timing of the introduction of gluten containing food not later than 6 months of age.

Legislative inconsistency

EFSA said that the background of the request is an inconsistency within the EU legislation and between the EU legislation and the relevant Codex Standard.

The EU legislation (Article 8 of Directive 2006/125/EC) has been based on the opinions of the Scientific Committee for Food (SFC) on weaning foods (EC, 1989 and 1990) and provides for the following mandatory labelling: 'the stated age shall not be less than four months for any product'.

In contrast to this, the labelling provisions in Directive 2006/141/EC concerning follow-on formula require the label to bear a statement saying that it is suitable only for infants over the age of six months.

Furthermore, the Codex Standard for processed cereal-based foods for infants and young children (Section 8.6.4) states that 'The label shall indicate clearly from which age the product is recommended for use. This age shall not be less than 6 months for any product’.​ The Codex Standard is based on recommendations made in the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding.

Many European countries have adopted the WHO recommendation for the duration of exclusive breast-feeding for 6 months, whilst other countries recommend the introduction of complementary feeding between 4 and 6 months.

Campaigners' disappointment

Patti Rundall, policy director of the UK based Baby Milk Action campaign group, is very concerned about the consequences of the NDA opinion.

She said it took years for the WHO to reach its recommendation regarding exclusive breast-feeding for six months, which she stressed, is based on proper systematic reviews.

“The opinion from the EFSA Panel is very disappointing and is a backward step. There is mounting evidence that, in the long term, babies that are breastfed exclusively for 6 months have several advantages in terms of health and development,” ​argues Rundall.

She claims cereal-based baby foods are highly profitable for manufacturers and that it is in their interest to encourage mothers to start using them as soon as possible.

A comment was sought from the EC Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) as to the impact of the NDA Panel's opinion but this was not forthcoming in time for publication.

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