ROME Italian police put 12 pediatricians under house arrest on Friday for allegedly accepting extravagant gifts from makers of baby milk formula to promote it in place of breastfeeding.
Police have been investigating "a common and widespread practice" in which pediatricians "prescribe baby milk formula to newborns in exchange for bribes in the form of luxury gifts and costly holidays", a statement said.
Two of the doctors put under arrest were chief pediatricians in hospitals, the statement said. Five sales representatives for three different companies and one executive were also under house arrest, police said, without giving names.
The sales representatives "contacted the pediatricians to urge them to prescribe baby formula to newborns, going against unanimous scientific opinion on the need to promote the use of mother's milk", the police statement said.
Carabinieri police Captain Gennaro Riccardi told Reuters the salespeople would hand out "hundreds of thousands of euros" in gifts to doctors employed by the state-run healthcare system if local sales figures were high.
The gifts included iPhones, Apple computers, air conditioners, televisions, trips to India, the United States, Paris, London and Istanbul and luxury cruises, Riccardi said.
"There are no adjectives to describe the gravity of these actions," Health Minister Beatrice Lorenzin said in a statement.
Doctors went against "unanimous scientific opinion and the indications of the health ministry in convincing mothers to use powdered milk formula in place of mother's milk".
According to the investigation, the management at DMF Dietetic Metabolic Food, an Italian company based near Milan, was directly involved in the kickback system, Riccardi said.
A sales representative for Milan-based Mellin was among those arrested, but in the case of Mellin and another company it is not yet clear whether the sales representatives acted on their own or with the knowledge of their management, Riccardi said.
A DMF employee told Reuters by telephone that company managers "are out of the office, are busy" and no one else was available to comment. In a statement, Mellin said it had no comment and that it would cooperate with authorities.
Twenty-six search-and-seizure orders connected with the case are being carried out in four Italian regions.
"We're still trying to find out the scale of the problem," Riccardi said.
(Additional reporting by Silvia Ognibene in Florence; editing by Andrew Roche)