“Protect, promote and support breastfeeding.” “Limit the inaccurate or misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.” Those were the words that the United States delegates took issue with during a meeting earlier this year for the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly. In a resolution meant to encourage breastfeeding in underdeveloped countries, the United States was loath to do anything that could potentially jeopardize the $70 billion baby formula industry, including support infant health. In order to stand their ground, the American delegates bullied smaller countries, namely Ecuador, threatening “punishing trade measures” that included the removal of key military aid unless Ecuador thwarted attempts to push forward what was expected to be a simple measure about maternal and infant health.
This is far from the first time the U.S. has flagrantly put corporate interests before the health of human beings, particularly if those human beings are poor or from underdeveloped countries. Earlier this year, during NAFTA negotiations, American officials were staunchly against putting warning labels on junk food packaging — a stance that worried health officials, particularly as obesity, spread by the rise of highly processed foods, increases worldwide. In past years, both the Clinton and Obama administrations sought to keep prescription drug prices high in low-income countries. There are many more examples, bipartisan examples, but there is something particularly disturbing about our nation’s new position on breastfeeding.
While not all mothers breastfeed, and not all mothers can breastfeed, it is indisputable that breastfeeding is the healthiest option for infants. As the surgeon general said in a statement, “Breast milk is uniquely suited to the human infant’s nutritional needs and is a live substance with unparalleled immunological and anti-inflammatory properties that protect against a host of illnesses and diseases for both mothers and children.” Or, as UNICEF document put it, “breastfeeding helps children survive.”
So why would U.S. officials put up such a fight against supporting breastfeeding? The answer is, of course, money. In recent years, sales of baby formula have decreased in wealthier nations as breastfeeding takes over and, the theory goes, the formula industry seeks to close that gap via a big marketing push in underdeveloped countries, where less than 40 percent of babies under 6 months are breastfed. This is not a new tactic. Since the 1970s, baby formula companies have been accused of promoting their products in communities where people cannot properly use them. In a 1974 report “The Baby Killer,” an investigation into powdered baby milk in underdeveloped countries showed that “more and more Third World mothers are turning to artificial foods during the first few months of their babies’ lives.” Adding, “The baby food industry stands accused of promoting their products in communities which cannot use them properly; of using advertising, sales girls dress in nurses uniforms, give away free samples and free gift gimmicks that persuade mothers to give up breastfeeding.”
It is this trend that many countries were trying to prevent via the resolution with which the United States took issue — a resolution the Americans approved only after Russia refused to back down. “We’re not trying to be a hero here, 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 the rest of the world,” an unnamed Russian delegate told the New York Times.
In the aftermath to this New York Times exposé, President Trump tweeted that “the U.S. strongly supports breastfeeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula.” Adding, “Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.”
Our report is accurate. You can read it here: https://t.co/Cr8QrabFR2
— NYTimes Communications (@NYTimesPR) July 9, 2018
President Trump’s argument is unsubstantiated, as malnourished mothers can often still produce milk and typically don’t have the access to clean water that formula requires.
The president’s track record on breastfeeding is not good. In 2011, Trump reportedly told lawyer Elizabeth Beck she was “disgusting” when she asked to excuse herself in order to pump for her 3-month-old daughter.
What’s disgusting are the U.S. delegates’ tactics of putting the health of the baby formula industry ahead of the health of actual babies.
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