Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Ethics of Formula Companies

Copyright Erika Gebhardt, 2009. May not be reprinted without permission.

In 1981, the United States became the only country to vote against the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes. Although the United States eventually supported the Code, little has been done in nearly thirty years to enforce it and the United States lags behind many countries who call for more strict regulations on the sale and promotion of formula.

Formula companies market relentlessly without concern for health ramifications, as each pregnant and postpartum woman is a possible consumer who will bring in revenue. Once a mother’s breastmilk dries up, she is dependant upon that substance to nourish her baby for up to a year or longer. Although the Innocenti Declaration of 1990 encouraged all countries to maintain the Code by 1995, in practice, the Code is rarely enforced.

The Code’s main provisions include no free samples to mothers, no advertising, and no gifts or personal samples to health care workers. With regards to the last rule, formula companies circumvent it by donating samples to health care organizations – such as hospitals or medical offices – rather than specifically targeting health care workers. These gifts are not just the formula itself but also helpful parenting tips (including the “breast is best” adage), diaper coupons, and, more often than not, a free diaper bag. These tactics are particularly manipulative with regards to lower income families – especially non-Hispanic black women, who have the lowest breastfeeding rates in the United States – as the free gifts are an important aspect of their birth experience. However, the increased financial cost of uninsured mothers receiving formula from WIC burdens all taxpayers. The gifts may be free, but the long-term ramifications are costly.

Forced not to advertise directly, formula companies came up with a brilliant trick: “follow-up” formula for babies who have been weaned. As follow-up formula targets mothers of babies who have been weaned, its promoters claim freedom from following the Code’s guidelines. Unsurprisingly, manufacturers advertise this formula for babies as young as three months. This type of formula – which has the same name as the infant formula, making it nearly indistinguishable from the infant version – is marketed with pictures of cherubic, smiling babies drinking formula from bottles.

The next marketing ploy used by formula companies is promoting breastfeeding. Since formula companies cannot state that formula is superior to breastmilk, they must concede that breastmilk is best and advertise as such. However, these pamphlets, books, and videos often contain advertisements for the formula company. In addition, many depict breastfeeding mothers as exhausted, nursing in a dark room by themselves. This is a marked contrast to the smiling woman bottle-feeding her chubby baby, surrounded by family and friends.

When trying to market formula that is nearly as good as breastmilk, formula companies have again damaged babies and mothers. Specifically, formula companies have added laboratory-produced oils that contain DHA and ARA in order to compete with breastmilk, which naturally contains both fatty acids. However, the DHA and ARA found in formula are extracted from fermented algae and fungus, via hexane, a solvent known for being neurotoxic. Formulas marketed to contain DHA and ARA only contain 40-50% of each fatty acid, with the rest made of components not found in human breastmilk – resulting in diarrhea in babies who consume this formula.

The most conclusive evidence that formula companies place profit above health comes from the Philippines, where three large United States-based companies – Wyeth, Abbott, and Mead Johnson – attempted to block the introduction of formula marketing regulations similar to the WHO code. In fact, the three companies sued the Philippine Government in order to prevent ethical marketing guidelines for formula. The WHO estimates that 16,000 babies die in the Philippines each year because they are not adequately breastfed, and that 90% of babies under six months who die are bottle-fed and fed foods other than breastmilk.


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