U.S. Threatens Poor Countries for Supporting Breastfeeding and Shunning U.S. Formula Companies

In an apparent effort to protect formula companies, the U.S. threatens the World Health Organization and poor countries for adopting a resolution to support breastfeeding

A United Nations resolution to encourage breastfeeding and discourage dishonest marketing by formula companies to poor nations was expected to pass unanimously at a gathering of the World Health Assembly this spring.

It was a straightforward resolution, based on decades of research, that would simply state that breast milk is the healthiest option for infants and young children and that countries should strive to limit the inaccurate and misleading marketing of formula and baby food.

But U.S. delegates almost blocked the resolution altogether and ultimately bullied delegates from other nations into watering it down, the New York Times reports.

Initially, American officials demanded the words “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” be removed from the resolution, along with another passage that encouraged international lawmakers to restrict the promotion of formula and other baby food products.

When that failed, they turned to threats, according to diplomats from a dozen countries that spoke anonymously to the Times.

When Ecuador first tried to introduce the measure, American diplomats threatened to “unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid.”

Some American delegates even suggested the United States, the single largest contributor to the World Health Organization, might cut its funding.

Health advocates scrambled to find another sponsor for the resolution, but at least a dozen poor countries in Africa and Latin America refused, citing fears of retaliation.

“What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage…” said Patti Rundall, the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action.

In the end, the Russians stepped up and introduces the measure. Being a more powerful nation, the Americans did not threaten them.

“We’re not trying to be a hero here,” a Russian delegate told the Times. “But we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for them.”

The issue is important to poorer nations, because they are the ones the formula companies target the hardest.

The $70 billion formula and baby food industry is dominated by a handful of American and European companies, but sales in those countries have flattened in recent years, as wealthier, more educated women embrace 40 years of research showing “breast is best.”

Meanwhile global formula sales are expected to rise 4 percent in 2018, with most of that growth in poor countries.

How formula companies target mothers who can least afford it

In an article titled “How Formula Firms Target Mothers Who Can Least Afford It,” The Guardian reports that formula companies use aggressive, sneaky and often illegal advertising campaigns to target mothers in the poorest parts of the world.

A Save the Children investigation revealed that Nestlé, Abbott, Mead Johnson were offering doctors, midwives and local health workers free trips to lavish conferences, meals, tickets to the cinema and even gambling chips to earn their loyalty.

Representatives from the companies had a constant presence in hospitals in the Philippines, where they reportedly hand out “infant nutrition” pamphlets that appear to be medical advice recommending specific formula brands and sometimes even including coupons.

Philippino mothers spend as much as three-quarters of their income on formula, often forgoing food themselves.

“I didn’t eat just so I could feed the baby,” one woman told The Guardian. “There were some days when I didn’t eat anything. And formula is expensive so I could not always give it to my baby when she was hungry. I only gave her half bottles, four times a day.”

By the time the mothers realize how expensive it is to formula feed their growing babies, it’s too late to breastfeed, as their milk is gone.

TV ads for brands such as Bonna portray the “Bonna kid” as who will be smarter and more successful, implying bottle feeding is not only as good as breast milk, but better at bolstering IQ and future prospects.

Store displays of formula in poor countries are splashed with claims such as “clinically proven to give the IQ + EQ advantage.”

“For mothers living in poverty, such aspirational marketing is particularly seductive,” The Guardian reports.

In Mexico, where just 31% of infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months, 50% of mothers surveyed said doctors had recommended formula over breastfeeding.  In Chile, 75% of doctors, nurses and midwives in hospitals reported visits from formula representatives.

In addition to these mothers being the least able to afford formula, they are also the least able to afford infant health problems that could be mitigated by breastfeeding such as pneumonia and diarrhea.