Adding to the concerns, the Wall Street Journal reported that in February 2021 – a year before the disruption – a former Abbott employee complained about a host of problems at the Sturgis plant, including
“failing equipment in need of repair and formula released without adequate evidence that it was safe for consumption.” According to the WSJ, the complaint was filed under the US Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s whistleblower-protection program. An Abbott spokesperson told the outlet that the company was aware of the concerns, but was not able to confirm the allegations. Why not breastfeed?
While observing the extent of the crisis, one may ask: Why do American parents need so much baby formula after all? The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusively breastfeeding a baby for about six months, and keep doing so as complementary foods are introduced for a year or longer.
However, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, citing data from 2017, although most newborns started breastfeeding (84.1%), only 58.3% of infants were being breastfed at six months.
“Low rates of breastfeeding add more than $3 billion a year to medical costs for the mother and child in the United States,” the CDC says. The data shows that 60% of mothers do not breastfeed for as long as they intend to. According to the CDC, it’s not only about health issues. A lack of support from families, employers or hospital staff is also named among the factors that influence mothers.
Dr. Melissa Mialon, research assistant professor at Trinity Business School (Trinity College Dublin, Ireland), has conducted a study about corporate political activity by the baby food industry in the US. She told RT that infant food manufacturers have influence at different social levels, from politicians to the scientific community.
“For example, Nestle funded a big study in the US called FITS (Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study),” she points out. According to Nestle’s website, FITS is actually “the largest dietary intake study in the United States that examines what and how infants and toddlers eat every day.”
Dr. Mialon, who is a consultant for various health and consumer organizations, including the WHO, also says that, in the US, a lot of baby formula is purchased and distributed with the help of the authorities.
“A lot of people rely on the WIC program (Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children). It’s a government program helping parents to feed their families. It’s supporting breastfeeding, but it’s also providing a lot of infant formula to parents. So, for parents who are poor, it’s easy to decide to take the formula because it’s paid for by the government. So, when you see a brand that has helped people, a brand endorsed by the government – you start to believe it’s good.” Aggressive marketing of formula
In February, the World Health Organization, together with the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), issued a report highlighting how aggressively baby-food companies are promoting their products among families with newborn children. A total of 51% of parents and pregnant women surveyed by the organizations said they had been targeted with marketing from formula milk companies. In the UK, for example, exposure to formula milk marketing reached 84% of all women who participated in the research. Plus, more than one-third of all the surveyed women said a health worker had recommended a specific brand of formula to them.
“A sustained flow of misleading marketing messages is reinforcing myths about breastfeeding and breast milk, and undermining women’s confidence in their ability to breastfeed successfully. These myths include the necessity of formula in the first days after birth, the inadequacy of breast milk for infant nutrition, that specific infant formula ingredients are proven to improve child development or immunity, the perception that formula keeps infants fuller for longer, and that the quality of breast milk declines with time,” the WHO and UNICEF warn.
The research didn’t focus on the US in particular. However, its authors consider that their conclusions show
“the most complete picture to date of mothers’ and health professionals’ experiences of formula milk marketing.” According to the study, companies even played on parents’ fears during the Covid-19 pandemic to boost sales. BQ The need for society and governments to call out the unethical nature of formula milk marketing to a much broader audience, and to take decisive action to end this marketing and increase support to mothers and families is long overdue. Doing so will inevitably unnerve the vested interests of this $55 billion industry and the shareholders and stakeholders who benefit from increasing sales.
Another report on the matter was issued by the WHO at the end of April. This time, it was dedicated to digital methods the companies use to reach their potential clients. Researchers analyzed four million social media posts published between January and June 2021, which reached 2.47 billion people and generated more than 12 million likes, shares or comments. “
Through tools like apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and competitions and advice forums or services, formula milk companies can buy or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers,” the organization concludes.
According to Dr. Olga Rudneva, a member of the medical council of the Russian Natural Feeding Consultant Association, the problem of aggressive marketing is quite global. Baby-formula producers use every method of promotion, while their profit is growing
“at an exponential rate.” “All the measures aimed at tackling the marketing influence are described in the WHO’s ‘ International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes’, which has existed since the ’80s. It’s a common tool that underlines the need to limit advertising and marketing methods, restrict contacts between companies and mothers, deny free samples being given to doctors or mothers, etc.,” she told RT. “But if we look at the map showing how the code is implemented globally, we can note that in the US no methods are adopted at all.”
Russia is not immune to the problem either, Dr. Rudneva points out. This year, the country’s parliament tried to completely outlaw infant formula advertising, but in the end decided to require such ads to contain information about the benefits of breastfeeding.
If the demand for baby formula is so high, and no one is unaffected by the shortage, what can we do? Both Dr. Rudneva and Dr. Mialon say that one option is to create more human milk banks. Another step that is urgently needed is to improve medics’ knowledge about breastfeeding.
“Everyone wants their babies to be healthy. The issue is not about ‘Did you manage to breastfeed or not?’ We should be protecting the health of our babies. Our doctors should be trained at helping us to breastfeed, the industries shouldn’t be able to market their product and be so close to our doctors,” Dr. Mialon concludes. “There shouldn’t be an agreement between mothers: It’s not the case that someone has failed. It’s because of the system we live in.” By Anastasia Safronova, RT editor
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