New York City’s campaign against infant formulainspired us to look into the dubious 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.
‘The Baby Killer’ blew the lid off the formula industry in 1974.
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.
Nestlé was accused of getting Third World mothers hooked on formula
Nevermind that these women lived in squalor and struggling to survive.
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.
Meanwhile, research was proving breastfeeding was healthier.
“At the same time, the benefits of breastfeeding were being brought to light,” Paige Harrigan a senior nutrition advisor with Save the Children, told Business Insider.
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.
Still, third world women yearned for Westernization.
Poor women longed to move from a rural to an urban way of life, which prodded them to abandon breastfeeding and in turn primed them for marketing, said War on Want:
“As the social position of women changes and they go out to earn a wage … looking at the breast as a cosmetic sex symbol rather than a source of nourishment reinforces the trend.”
New mothers everywhere received promotional material for formula.
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.”
War on Want said this undermined women’s confidence in breastfeeding.
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.”
Hospitals were also accused of pushing mothers to use formula.
This worked on two levels, said New Internationalist: In exchange for handing out “discharge packs” of formula, hospitals received freebies like formula and baby bottles.
“The most insidious of these is a free architectural service to hospitals which are building or renovating facilities for newborn care,” the authors wrote.
Beyond that, the authors said “baby milk companies spend untold millions of dollars subsidizing office furnishings, research projects, gifts, conferences, publications and travel junkets of the medical profession.”
Meanwhile in the Third World, women tried to save money by diluting the formula.
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.
A New York Times’ article on the scandal said one Jamaican family’s income “averaged only $7 a week,” leading the mother to dilute the water with as much as three times the recommended amount of water so she could feed two children.
Millions of babies died from malnutrition.
“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.”
In the Times, 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.
Nestlé sued a War On Want publisher for libel in 1974.
Nestlé wasn’t about to take these allegations lying down. It sued a German translator of War on Want’s exposé, which published it in Sweden with the title, “Nestlé Kills Babies.”
Nestlé won the suit in 1976, said Baby Milk Action , but with a caveat: The judge urged them to “modify its publicity methods fundamentally.” Time Magazinedeclared this a “moral victory” for consumers.
The bad publicity sparked a global boycott of Nestlé.
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.
“I remember my mother telling me about this and in 1980, she refused to buy candy bars because we heard of so many kids dying in the news stories,” said Harrigan.
The boycott was suspended in 1984, but resurfaced in the late 1980s when Ireland, Australia, Mexico, Sweden and the U.K. adopted it.
The International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes was created in 1981.
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 Assemblyhad adopted Resolution WHA34.22, which includes the International Code of Marketing Breast-Milk Substitutes.
The code explained how baby formula should be promoted worldwide.
Among them, the code states that baby food companies may not:
- Promote products in hospitals, shops or to the general public
- Give free samples to mothers
- Give gifts to health workers or mothers
- Give misleading information
“The biggest one was explaining the costs of using the formula,” said Harrigan.
Social rights groups say baby food companies still don’t comply.
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.
But whether countries abide by the code is so hard to track, said Harrigan. “The code may be law in some places, but often enforcement is weak. The next step will be deciding whether the code is law and how to enforce it in a systemized way.”
Celebrities like this British TV host joined the breastfeeding cause in the 1990s.
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.
Today, breastfeeding and formula remain a hot topic.
Recently, NYC Mayor Bloomberg launched the Latch On, NYC iniative which aims to do away with formula in hospitals.
“From what I can tell, it’s using the a lot of provisions in the code,” said Harrigan.