At a World Health Assembly in May, a resolution to promote breast-feeding was met with opposition by one of the wealthiest members of the United Nations.
A dissenting group representing the United States tried to block the measure, claiming that the public health effort puts baby formula in a bad light.
The New York Times first broke the story of political intimidation. The move seemed poised to protect the interests of the formula manufacturers over the health of babies and mothers. Most of the companies that produce baby formula are European or North American based.
First, U.S. diplomats tried chipping away at the language promoting breast-feeding. Eventually, they then strong-armed smaller countries like Ecuador, which was originally going to introduce the resolution, to drop the measure by threatening severe trade repercussions. Some delegates even threatened to remove the U.S.’s funds toward the World Health Organization, which makes up 15 percent of the organization’s annual budget. It was the Russians who came to the rescue, finally introducing the resolution with little input from the United States delegates. The resolution passed when it went to a vote.
This was not the first time the United States has used its world power to save its bottom line. During the Obama administration, there was pressure on Colombia to accept the demands of the pharmaceutical company Novartis or risk the funding for the country’s peace efforts.
“It’s not uncommon for the infant formula industry to speak out against measures that protect or support breast-feeding,” says Lucy M. Sullivan, the executive director for an advocacy organization that promotes breast-feeding called 1,000 Days. “We were surprised to see the aggressiveness with which the Trump administration tried to kill the resolution. Their tactics sent a chilling effect to other countries.”
Sullivan says that protecting the interests of formula and dairy producers is the only explanation for such a strong show of strength.
Baby formula isn’t inherently a bad thing, but in many parts of the world, it’s difficult to find clean water to mix with the powder. On the U.S. government’s food safety site, the guidelines for preparing formula assumes you have access to running hot water to wash hands, sanitize bottles and mix with the formula to get it to its liquid state. Without those precautions, you risk contaminating the food of a baby who’s not yet developed its immune system. One study in the U.K. estimated that breast-feeding could prevent the deaths of over 800,000 babies worldwide.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk as the only food babies should consume for at least the first six months of their lives.
Of course, formula has its benefits when prepared correctly, particularly in the United States and other countries where women often have to go back to work shortly after childbirth. They may not have access to breast pumps, or be given the time or space to pump. Some women can’t produce milk, which is when formula becomes a lifesaver.