THE implementation of new rules on the advertising of formula milk products has triggered a major row between the government and the infant food industry.

New EU regulations that were due to come into force in January have been suspended in England, Wales and Northern Ireland after a legal challenge by manufacturers, who are seeking a judicial review of the situation.

In Scotland, similar legal proceedings got under way last Friday, with the interim hearing expected this week.

The toughened rules on the labelling and promotion of infant and follow-on formula - a range for children between six months and two years - are aimed at ensuring efforts to improve breastfeeding rates are not being undermined.

While the Infant and Dietetic Foods Association (IDFA), which represents manufacturers, said it backs the new regulations, it claimed it has been forced to take the legal action because of a "rush" to implement the rules that makes it impossible for companies to comply.

But after the suspension of the regulations in England and Wales, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), a government body, said it was "extremely disappointed" as it had been consulting manufacturers about the regulations for almost three years.

Campaigners have also accused the manufacturers of trying to undermine efforts to toughen up existing controls. Patti Rundall, policy director of group Baby Milk Action, said aggressive marketing techniques had led to the UK formula market nearly trebling in recent years, from £119 million to £329m.

"The industry is demonstrating its total lack of concern for health and the right of parents to have truly objective and sound information," she said. "They know that if the regulations are enforced and strengthened after review, many of their misleading marketing strategies will finally have to stop."

There are already controls on advertising infant formula milk - for example, companies are not allowed to generally promote it. The restricted amount of direct advertising to parents that is permitted - such as posters in health clinics - will no longer be allowed.

Restrictions on the advertising of follow-on milks are also outlined in the new legislation. While this can still be advertised, manufacturers will have to make it clear it is intended for older babies, to ensure it cannot be confused with infant formula in the minds of consumers. Only a small number of approved health and nutrition claims will be allowed, with phrases such as "closest to breast milk" banned.

A recent report by Baby Milk Action highlighted some of the marketing techniques used by companies, such as offering voucher incentives in return for signing up to receive information on infants' milks, and branded pregnancy record books or "Baby's First Year" books that promote websites and carelines.

Rundall, who backed a total ban on advertising of any infant formula, said parents should not be pushed into breastfeeding, but had to be offered unbiased information and support to help them to make a choice. She said: "All the work on breastfeeding is being undermined by commercial promotion."

Roger Clarke, director general of the IDFA, argued the decision by parents to breastfeed, use formula or a combination was a "complex issue". "I would say to consumer groups they need to look at the issue holistically and not always put it at the door of the manufacturing industry that is providing the product," he said. "The industry carries out a very important role in terms of being able to give people advice on safe preparation or choice of product once they have made their decision."

Clarke said manufacturers backed the new legislation but the legal action had been triggered by an unexpected change to the implementation process by the FSA. He said this left companies facing conforming to the rules in six weeks instead of the expected two-year transition period, prompting concerns that products that did not comply would have to be removed from the shelves.

"You can't beat us over the head and say we haven't made the changes, because we thought we had two years like everybody else in Europe," he added.

The IDFA members that have taken the legal action are SMA Nutrition and Nutricia, which make up 98% of sales of baby milk formula in the UK. In England and Wales, it is expected the case will be heard before the end of February.

A spokesman for FSA Scotland said an interim hearing began in Scotland last Friday and was expected to continue this week. He confirmed that Scottish regulations have not been suspended but added it could not comment further until the outcome was known.