Shelves are empty in a supermarket in Sydney on March 4, 2020. (AFP / Peter Parks)

Manufacturers say 'free baby formula' offer is a hoax, after coronavirus sparks panic buying

Multiple Facebook posts shared hundreds of times in March 2020 claim that consumers can claim a free case of baby formula if they call the relevant manufacturer. The posts were shared after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared the spread of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19, had become a pandemic, prompting panic buying in some countries. The claim is false; several manufacturers told AFP that the post is a hoax; the leading industry association noted that official guidelines forbid the donation of formula to the public.

The claim was published on Facebook here on March 16, 2020.

The post features a text graphic that reads: “For parents who can’t find formula in stores. Call the number on the back of formula can and they will send you a case during this time! Childcare providers share this information!!!”

Below is a screenshot of the misleading post:

A similar claim was also published on Facebook here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Many of the posts circulated in Australia, while others were shared in North America.

The claim is false.

Infant formula manufacturers Nestlé, Danone and A2 Milk all told AFP the claim is a hoax.

“There is not a phone number to ring for free infant formula product (case or can),” an A2 Milk spokesperson said via email on March 17, 2020.

The Infant Nutrition Council, an industry group representing infant formula and toddler milk drink producers in Australia, also said that infant formula cannot be donated by its members to the general public.

“As a signatory to the [Marketing in Australia of Infant Formula Agreement (MAIF)], companies will never directly market infant formula to the general public and they also cannot donate infant formula to the general public,” Jan Carey, the organisation’s CEO, told AFP via email on March 17, 2020.

Carey added that the MAIF is the Australian government’s response to the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which aims to promote safe and adequate nutrition for infants by protecting and promoting breastfeeding worldwide.

A list of companies who are signatories to the MAIF agreement can be found here.

US infant formula brand Enfamil also refuted the claim on its website: "Please also note, that contrary to rumors in some online social networks, we are not distributing free cases of formula. We are instead focused on ensuring equitable availability for every baby based on what we know and in anticipation of what might develop in the coming weeks." 

UPDATE: The headline in this story has been changed.