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Can A Formula Company Support Breastfeeding?

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by Amy Spangler
November 12, 2009

The blog PhD In Parenting, written by an author who simply goes by Annie, recently asked that very question, along with several others, directly to Nestle. Nestle reportedly controls 40 percent of the world’s baby food market.

Annie’s questions were prompted by Nestle’s decision to sponsor a Nestle Family blogger event, much to Annie’s consternation. At the center of her opposition is the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes, commonly referred to as the Code.

Developed in 1981 by the World Health Organization and UNICEF, the stated intent of the Code is to “…halt and restrict many promotional practices such as advertising, samples and free supplies, used to increase sales of infant foods, feeding bottles and teats.”

Although governments in more than 60 countries have adopted the Code, compliance is mostly voluntary with only a few countries having an enforcement (do this or else…) component.

In addition to calling upon Nestle to abide by the Code, Annie expresses her frustration with those who chose to participate in the Nestle Family blogger event and cautions them to at least “listen with a critical ear and not accept everything Nestle says at face value.”

Many share Annie’s frustration with Nestle, believing that companies like the infant formula behemoth not only allow profit to take precedent over infant and child health but insert themselves into an arena in which they have no role to play.

If someone is looking for information on lung cancer, they are more likely to contact the American Lung Association rather than Philip Morris. If someone is struggling with overweight or obesity, they will likely turn to the nearest Weight Watchers instead of Mars or Frito-Lay. Alcoholics desperate to manage their addiction, seek out Alcoholic Anonymous not MillerCoors.

Conflicts of interest
Philip Morris, Mars, Frito-Lay, and MillerCoors certainly have the resources to provide a wide range of information and support, but they also have a vested interest in getting people to smoke cigarettes, eat candy and snack foods, and drink beer. It’s hard to imagine a tobacco company having a legitimate role in smoking cessation or a candy company in obesity prevention. Because infant formula companies have an economic interest in mothers not breastfeeding, any role in breastfeeding promotion is suspect.

Case in point is Abbott Laboratories’ new Sling Pack for breastfeeding moms, complete with cooler bag, gel packs, a plethora of coupons, and The Strong Moms Guide to Nutrition. In addition to the breastfeeding promotion items, there is an 8-ounce can of powdered formula and guidelines for supplementing and formula-feeding.

Can a formula company support breastfeeding? They can and they do, with the help of countless hospitals and health care providers who everyday distribute thousands of free formula company discharge packs. The dirty little secret is that they’re not free. The cost of the canvas bag or backpack filled with samples and given to expectant and new mothers when they leave the hospital or doctor’s office is covered by the higher cost of the products those same mothers purchase after having used the free samples.

The real frustration of Annie and countless others like her is the inability of the breastfeeding advocacy community to compete with formula company initiatives like the Sling Pack, given formula companies’ access to a seemingly endless stream of advertising dollars–dollars generated by the sale of formula.

Which is why the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes is so important. I hope I live long enough to see the Code not only adopted but also enforced.