A Common Commodity

Infant formula has made its mark as a common household commodity in the 21st century and oddly breastfeeding has become almost faux pas. So how is it then that the most natural way of feeding a child has now become tactless and socially awkward? The answer is in the media, in advertising and aggressive marketing. The controversy surrounding the health benefits of a mother’s breast milk versus synthetically produced formula is a growing concern worldwide. Much of the support for breastfeeding is lost in the advertising campaigns of big corporations though, making it hard for mothers to find adequate information. The insignificant amount of support for breastfeeding allows corporations to aggressively push their products, especially in smaller counties of the world. In a global economy, marketing is a given; however, aggressive advertising of infant formula in developing Third World countries can become detrimental to the nutrition of infants.

Since the institution of infant formula in the mainstream marketplace, there has been a growing controversy over the benefits of formula and breast milk. Infant formula is very convenient for many reasons: it is easily portable, anyone can feed the child, the mother can work away from home, and, in some cases, is necessary for mothers who are unable to breastfeed due to medical conditions. These factors have made infant formula extremely popular. While convenient, it is also very expensive and the cost alone can put a strain on low income families and in turn lead to practices that can harm the infant’s health. However, if the mother chooses to feed exclusively on breast milk, there is no cost of formula or bottles. Breastfeeding is also very wholesome for the child’s nutrition and creates a strong bond between the infant and mother. It also results in many benefits for the mother such as releasing the hormone prolactin, which calms the body, postpones menstruation, burns calories, and decreases the chance of diabetes, depression, and several types of cancer (Crayon). The Protein Advisory Group, PAG, has also researched and declared in their document, Statement 23, ” — the superiority of breast-feeding whenever possible — “(Hicks, 2).

As a result of a predominant socioeconomic structure and the emergence of glorified campaigns, infant formula boomed in America during the fifties. However, this market rapidly declined in the following decades due to natural feeding campaigns and a new exposure of breastfeeding information. Big corporations that had seen enormous profits during the fifties began to aggressively advertise to the Third World in order to broaden their market and regain profits. The Nestle Corporation was the most notable offender, and proclaimed that it was out to help the children and was going to close the “nutrition gap” in the Third World. Nestle quickly began flooding countries in Africa and Latin America with advertisements over the television, radio, posters, billboards, pamphlets and even loudspeaker vans. The company relied heavily on picture-based advertising to overcome literacy barriers and went to great lengths to advertise directly to the consumers. This direct approach included sponsorship of hospitals and the recruitment of “mother-craft nurses”, who were not qualified medical professionals, to speak with and persuade new mothers to buy formula. Both the “nurses” and hospitals were encouraged to supply the mothers with free samples and bottles (Winsted).

As a consequence of Nestle’s marketing approach, many mothers were “hooked” into using formula. By being introduced to formula at such an early stage in the feeding process, mothers would quickly lose the ability to produce milk and feed naturally. As a result of this, the mothers and infants would then become reliant on infant formula as the only means of sustenance. The biggest problem concerning infant formula was the mother’s inability to afford the cost of formula. In many developing countries, the price of formula can consume as much as fifty percent of the household’s income. Consequently, mothers, desperate to feed their child and to conserve money, turned to diluting formula to make it last longer, thus resulting in severe malnutrition. Another major issue was the cost of fuel needed to cleanse the water that was being used to mix the formula. Contaminated water is a major issue when mixing formula, mainly because the water being used came directly from local rivers that are also frequented as a public toilet and community laundry. The contaminated water can ravage the weak immune system of an infant and many babies became severely ill and in some cases died. Sanitation also became an issue since bottles were being washed in cold water and large batches of formula were being prepared without any refrigeration. Unfortunately, the infant mortality rate in these countries skyrocketed (Winsted).

While many formula companies were advertising in the Third World, Nestle’s campaign drew the most attention to the media and the public. In 1974, the Third World Action Group published a pamphlet entitled, “Nestle Kills Babies”, accusing Nestle of unethical marketing in developing countries that led to the malnutrition and death of infants (Winsted). Three years later the Infant Formula Action Coalition ,INFACT, was formed and the international Nestle boycott was instated. The boycott was heavily supported in the United States by Dr. Benjamin Spock, a respected pediatrician, Ralph Nader, a renowned human-rights activist, the National Education Association and the National Council of Churches. Due to the support of the boycott and the ever growing controversy surrounding Nestl¨, the World Health Organization ,WHO, met to draw up the “WHO Code”. The code directly addresses the ethics of aggressive advertising in developing countries through suggested laws and bans to be adopted by individual governments (Hicks).

Recently, many countries have adopted the WHO Code as law, yet big name formula companies continue to market unethically and illegally. The Vietnamese government adopted a code of laws in 1994 making it illegal to sell formula in hospitals and prohibiting direct advertising to health workers and mothers in health care facilities. Since the formula industry is among the top five advertisers in Vietnam, it is no surprise that the industry frequently lobbies the government to prevent further laws that would adhere more strictly to the WHO Code. Loopholes in the law also make it very hard to hold formula companies accountable for their violations (“Aggressive”).

A prime instance occurred in 2009 when the Vietnamese Health Ministry uncovered countless violations regarding formula labeling but issued only one fine of $200. Dutch Lady, a Swedish formula manufacturer, has been worming its way through legislative loopholes for years to promote its product. The company sponsors a women’s health clinic in Dong Nai, where the Dutch Lady logo appears on the clinic’s registration forms, a giant Dutch Lady sign hangs in the waiting room and the staff are all “encouraged” to promote milk products for pregnant and nursing mothers. This same company also provides lunch for fifty interns from smaller clinics monthly and has sent company representatives to hospitals posed as academic researchers to acquire patient information. Another large company, Abbott, recently held a “Child Nutrition Seminar” which 600 mothers attended. The seminar was held at a five-star hotel and focused on a speech called “Awakening Your Child’s Potential” with a video of a girl talking at six months and reading at fourteen months, insinuating higher intelligence when fed Abbott’s infant formula (“Aggressive”).

Although the scandal in Vietnam has been drawing a lot of attention from the media, it cannot be overlooked that similar incidences still occur around the world daily. Many companies use the guise of “humanitarian aid” to market in disaster zones and economically unstable regions. In Ghana, the Ministry of Health received a letter from a formula company in the United States. The company claimed to be answering a request of the Ghanaian government and was offering free distribution of formula and the names of non-profit organizations for soliciting. The Ghanaian government never requested aid. In countries like Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Pakistan and Uruguay, governments are frequently subjected to lobbyists from multiple big name corporations. Many companies threaten to remove factories, causing massive unemployment, in order to deter new laws that would hinder advertising. A newer more alarming trend, however, is the medicalization of formula. Formulas are promoted to “solve medical problems” in infants and can be extremely dangerous to an infant’s health if used repeatedly or improperly. The advertising behind the formula creates paranoia in new mothers and leads to self-diagnosis of the infant; in some cases this can cause medical problems that did not exist prior to specialized formula use. For example; in the United Kingdom, a high-energy formula similar to Monster or Red-Bull dinks was promoted for infants with a “failure-to-thrive” and no mention was made or the proper use or that the formula could be harmful to the child’s development. Soy- based formulas are heavily advertised as well, partly due to the rise in vegetarianism, and are becoming one of the top selling formulas in the United States. Soy formula does not contain nearly as many nutrients as cow’s milk based formula and consequently should only be used in very specific situations as prescribed by a physician (“WHO”).

Even though many unethical practices still exist in today’s global market, numerous steps are being made toward a more ethical and nutritionally beneficial promotion of breast milk supplements. Groups such as the World Health Organization, the International Baby Food Action Network, and the United Nations Children’s Fund ,UNICEF, are working steadily to encourage breastfeeding and to bring awareness to wrongful marketing. A strong promotion of natural feeding through marketing is the key to raising breastfeeding exclusivity rates as has been proven in countries such as Norway and Denmark, where breastfeeding is accepted and culturally supported. In some cases governmental action has also helped to promote natural feeding and reduce infant mortality rates. A leading example of breastfeeding endorsement has also occurred in India. Through coordinated governmental efforts, India has created a strong foundation for mothers to gain access to feeding information and medical assistance. The India Academy of Pediatrics and the Federation of Obstetrics and Gynecology Societies both reject sponsorship from formula companies. The Indian Ministry of Health has also opened over 900 “Baby Friendly Hospitals”, where through breastfeeding the premature infant survival rate has gone from three in ten to eight, and has recently launched a program that provides working mothers with child care and breastfeeding information (“WHO”).

In short, aggressive baby formula advertising can be highly detrimental to the health of infants in developing countries around the world. The situation can be changed and improved, however, with an increased awareness, allowing nations to build and maintain strong cultural and governmental support. With enough promotion and education about natural feeding and the use of formula as a supplement and not as a primary source of feeding, a rise in the exclusivity of breastfeeding can be made. While infant formula has become a common commodity, breastfeeding can make its way back to the forefront of child nutrition.

Works Cited

“Aggressive Push for Baby Formula in Vietnam.” today.msnbc.msn.com. Associated Press, 20 Sept. 2009. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.

Crayon, Beth. “Breastfeeding Vs. Infant Formula.” brighthub.com. Irohner, 28 Nov. 2010. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.

Hicks, Guy. “The Infant Formula Controversy.” heritage.org. Guy Hicks, 14 May 1981. Web. 11 Feb. 2011.

“The WHO Code ‘” 19 Years On: A quick look at the rest of the world.” breastfeeding.asn.au. Australian Breastfeeding Association, n.d. Web. 23 Feb. 2011.

Winsted, Kathy. “Nestle Infant Formula.” webpage.pace.edu. Pace University, n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2011.