The Expensive and Less Healthy Infant Formula

The campaign of New York city against infant formula reminds us to look into the scandalous history of this product.

Outrage started in the 1970s, when Nestle was accused of getting third world mothers hooked on formula, which is less healthy and more expensive than breast milk.

The allegations led to hearings in the Senate and the World Health Organization, resulting in a new set of marketing rules.

Yet infant formula remains a $11.5-billion-and-growing market.

Social rights groups began dragging the industry’s exploitative practices into the spotlight in the early 1970s.

The New Internationalist published an exposé on Nestlé’s marketing practices in 1973, “Babies Mean Business,” which described how the company got Third World mothers hooked on baby formula.

But it was “The Baby Killer,” a booklet published by London’s War On Want organization in 1974, that really blew the lid off the baby formula industry.

In poverty-stricken cities in Asia, Africa and Latin America, “babies are dying because their mothers bottle feed them with Western-style infant milk,” alleged War on Want.

Nestlé accomplished this in three ways, said New Internationalist:

Creating a need where none existed.
Convincing consumers the products were indispensable.
Linking products with the most desirable and unattainable concepts—then giving a sample.

“At the same time, the benefits of breastfeeding were being brought to light,” Paige Harrigan a senior nutrition advisor with Save the Children, said.

Vitamin A prevents blindness and lowers a child’s risk of death from common diseases, while zinc might stave off diarrhea, according to the organization’s State of the World Report. Six months of exclusive breastfeeding are said to increase a child’s chance of survival by six times.

Besides handing out pamphlets and samples to new mothers, companies hired “‘sales girls in nurses’ uniforms (sometimes qualified, sometimes not)” to drop by their homes unannounced and sell them on baby formula, said War on Want.

Here, one mother recounts a Nestlé “milk nurse’s” sales pitch:

“The nurse began by saying … breastfeeding was best. She then went on detail the supplementary foods that the breastfed baby would need … The nurse was implying that it was possible to start with a proprietary baby milk from birth, which would avoid these unnecessary problems.”

Playing into undernourished women’s fear of harming their newborn was a “confidence trick,” said War on Want. When these women felt fear, pain or sadness, their milk would dry up as a result.

The “letdown reflex, which controls the flow of milk to the mother’s nipple is a nervous mechanism,” the paper said. “Somehow mothers are deciding that a bottle is necessary to the milk she provides … some mothers may even become so concerned about not having enough milk that they will not have enough.”

Formulas had to be mixed with water, but Third World mothers didn’t understand that overdilluting it—especially with contaminated water—could “prevent a child from absorbing the nutrients in food and lead to malnutrition,” said War on Want.

“The results can be seen in the clinics and hospitals, the slums and graveyards of the Third World,” said War on Want. “Children whose bodies have wasted away until all that is left is a big head on top of the shriveled body of an old man.”

United States Agency for International Development official, Dr. Stephen Joseph, blamed reliance on baby formula for a million infant deaths every year through malnutrition and diarrheal diseases.

It also hindered infant growth in general, said War on Want. Citing “complex links emerging between breast feeding and emotional and physical development,” the group said breastfed children walked “significantly better than bottle-fed” kids, and were more emotionally advanced.

Infant Formula Action Coalition launched a boycott in the U.S. protesting Nestlé. Soon it spread to France, Finland and Norway and countless other countries.

The boycott was suspended in 1984, but resurfaced in the late 1980s when Ireland, Australia, Mexico, Sweden and the U.K. adopted it.

In 1978, Senator Edward Kennedy held a series of U.S. Senate Hearings on the industry’s unethical marketing practices. International meetings with the World Health Organization, Unicef and The International Baby Food Action Network followed.

By 1981, the 34th World Health Assembly had adopted Resolution WHA34.22, which includes the International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes.

To this day, Nestlé is scrutinized by citizens and NGOs worldwide. Publications such as IBFAN’s “Breaking the Rules, Stretching The Rules,” outline violations ranging from displaying posters showing healthy bottle-fed babies in hospital rooms to giving doctors promotional prescription pads.

Britain’s “The Mark Thomas Product” show skewered Nestlé in 1999 when its host asked heads of the company why they misrepresented their products—and labeled them in English. Didn’t this take advantage of the poor and illiterate?

Here, Mark Thomas asks a “tin of baby milk from Mozambique” isn’t written in Portuguese, the country’s official language.

According to Baby Milk Action, Emma Thompson famously called for a boycott of the Perrier Comedy Award in 2001 since the beverage is owned by Nestlé. The following year, the Tap Water Awards were established.