From Common Dreams
Trump bends over backward to help profit-hungry infant formula industry
In May, the government of Ecuador came to the World Health Organization (WHO) assembly with a resolution on breastfeeding. What worried the government of Ecuador, and many other governments of the Global South, is the behavior of large corporations -- Nestle in the lead. These corporations that sell infant formula have wanted to promote the use of substitutes to breast milk, especially in places such as Ecuador.
The month before -- in April 2018 -- the WHO and UNICEF jointly put out guidelines to support breastfeeding in health facilities. These "Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding" assist health care workers to encourage breastfeeding rather than to encourage the use of infant formulas. Breastfeeding babies in their first two years, say these UN agencies, would save the lives of more than 820,000 children under the age of five. "Breastfeeding saves lives. Its benefits help keep babies healthy in their first days and last well into adulthood," said UNICEF's executive director Henrietta H. Fore.
At the WHO Assembly, the United States government objected to the Ecuador proposal. The U.S. wanted the WHO to remove the statement "protect, promote and support breastfeeding" from the resolution. Why would the U.S. government oppose this statement? An employee of the Health and Human Services Department of the U.S. government told me bitterly that this has to do with corporate pressure. Corporations that make infant formula have long caviled at the restrictions they face in marketing their product.
Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes
These restrictions came from the May 1981 WHO-UNICEF International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes. That Code specifically prevents the aggressive marketing of infant formula by corporate representatives who masquerade as health care professionals (so-called "milk nurses") and by the donation of samples to hook children. When the Code came before the World Health Assembly, the vote on it was 93 to 3. Two of the countries that voted against the Code -- Bangladesh and Chad -- said that they did not oppose the Code itself, but only wanted to extend the debate. The United States -- the third country to vote against the Code -- actually voted against it.
The U.S. representative to the Assembly in 1981, Gerald B. Helman, said that his government opposed the WHO's "involvement in commercial codes." What the U.S. did not want was for the multilateral agencies to get involved in the regulation of business. Echoing Helman, the International Council of Infant Food Industries said that the Code lacked "flexibility." This means that the infant food corporations felt hemmed in by the regulations.
The WHO and the UNICEF took up discussion over the Code because of a scandal in the 1970s around Nestle''s marketing practices. In 1974, the activist group War on Want produced a pamphlet "The Baby Killer," which was on how Nestle pushed its infant formula and how it denigrated breastfeeding. A Swiss group translated the report, with an inflammatory title -- "Nestle Toten Babies," or "Nestle Kills Babies." Nestle took the Swiss firm to court, which found the title libelous. The court case put on the table the issue of breastfeeding and corporate profit from the sale of infant formula.
The WHO and UNICEF responded in 1981 with their guidelines to clarify the terms of the debate from their standpoint. Dr. Torbjorn Mork of Norway, deputy chair of the WHO board, said at that time that the agency was looking at this not as an economic issue but as a public health issue that was important to children around the world and "thus to all future generations on our spaceship earth."
The Code was not enough. Infant formula firms went around its regulations, creating infant cereals and offering free as well as subsidized breastmilk substitutes to hospitals. The World Health Assembly in 1984 and 1986 and then later had to close these loopholes. It has been a constant battle between the infant formula firms and the needs of families.
Between the Bottle and the Breast
In 1984, Professor Carolyn Campbell wrote an instructive paper in the International Journal of Health Services on the debate around breastfeeding and formula. What she found was that the debate itself had lost the focus on the well-being of children and their families.
On the one side, the corporations and the intellectuals of the free market made the case to substitute formula for breast milk. There is money to be made in the selling of formula. Companies like Nestle, which dominate the market, have long seen the massive profits from the discouragement of breastfeeding and the encouragement of infant formula. The only competition for the firm was the lactating mother. But she could easily be defeated, Campbell noted, by a kind of psychological war against women -- providing free formula for a few weeks, making the case that breastfeeding is difficult, and encouraging caesarean births, all of these able to cut down on breast milk production "due to lack of sucking stimulus."
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