The Battle Over Infant Formula: Déjà Vu – How Russia Stole the Show

Forty years ago, the infant formula scandal exploded when pediatricians across the developing world reported it was killing babies because poor, undernourished women could not afford it. They found that the women diluted the formula with often unsanitary water and used for two weeks the quantity meant for two days or for two infants what was meant for just one.

The battle raged as big business, with Nestlé in the lead, fought back. They found an ally in the American government. And now the battle has started all over again, even though the latest scientific findings confirming the superiority of breastfeeding for infant health had settled any remaining doubt. We saw a repeat performance on the part of the United States. And Russia played an unexpected role. Here is what happened.

On December 6, 1981, the New York Times, in an article entitled “The Controversy Over Infant Formula”, reported that “the controversy and confusion over opinions [about infant formula] …reached the scale of global conflict earlier this year when the World Health Organization (W.H.O.) voted 118 to 1 to adopt a nonbinding code restricting the promotion of infant-formula products.”

The lone dissenting voice was the United States’ and Elliott Abrams, then Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs provided an explanation:

“Despite our governmental interest in encouragement of breast-feeding… the W.H.O. recommendations for a complete ban on advertising to the public of infant formula and the proposed restrictions on the flow of information between manufacturers and consumers ”run counter to our constitutional guarantees of free speech and freedom of information.”

And this, in spite of the results of a Senate hearing back in 1978, chaired by Senator Edward Kennedy that was called to look into the marketing practices of the infant formula industry. Nestlé was one of the key witnesses:  

And here is what happened last month.

On July 7, 2018 the New York Times article entitled “Opposition to Breastfeeding Resolution by U.S. Stuns World Health”  reported on what happened at the World Health Organization when a seemingly innocuous resolution to encourage breastfeeding was proposed.

Given the non-controversial subject matter, it was expected to pass easily but “the United States delegation, embracing the interests of infant formula manufacturers, upended the deliberations” by seeking to remove…”language that called on governments to ‘protect, promote and support breast-feeding’ and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.”

The government of Ecuador who had sponsored the resolution was threatened by the United States. In the words of the Times:  “If Ecuador refused to drop the resolution, Washington would unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid.”

This caused an immediate reaction among WHO members. Poor nations of Africa and Africa fearing retaliation backed away from the effort. The United States officials at the WHO stepped up the attack. The Times reported that “During the deliberations, some American delegates even suggested the United States might cut its contribution to the W.H.O., several negotiators said.” Fortunately, to little avail:  In the end, the Americans’ efforts were mostly unsuccessful. It was the Russians who ultimately stepped in to introduce the measure — and the Americans did not threaten them.”

After nearly 40 years of supporting research, the United States again stands alone in seeking to undo a longstanding global infant survival effort.

This is again misguided. But even in terms of current geopolitics and influence, to have the Russians seen as the hero in global health, essentially embarrassing the U.S., is to further undermine U.S. global health leadership in the twenty-first century.

It is not too late for the U.S. to regain its reputation as the country that cares most about the health of this and the next generation.  But the window of opportunity is closing quickly.

FEATURED IMAGE CREDIT:  Valeria Rodrigues, Pixabay CCO Creative Commons




About the Author /

Richard Seifman is a former World Bank Senior Health Advisor and U.S. Senior Foreign Service Officer. He is currently a Board Member of the United Nations Association-National Capital Area.

Post a Comment

Scroll Up