What Everyone Should Know About the Unethical Marketing of Infant Formula

Infant formula companies such as Enfamil, Nestle, and Similac are not in the business of manufacturing artificial breast milk substitutes to ensure the health and well-being of infants. Formula manufacturers have considerable profits to gain by aggressively marketing and promoting their inferior products because infant formula is a multi-billion dollar industry. Formula companies still have an unfortunately strong presence in some hospital maternity departments although they have lost some level of control over the last few decades.

Fortunately, some reputable hospitals have prohibited dispensing free formula samples to new mothers because it is counterproductive to the U.S. Government’s Healthy People 2010 goal of increasing breastfeeding rates among new mothers to 75%. Also, infant formula causes many avoidable illnesses, and in our litigious-friendly nation, hospitals are growing weary of their role in increasing those illnesses by their unethical and questionable promotion of a product scientifically demonstrated to contribute to such illnesses. The resulting ear infections, respiratory complications, gastrointestinal distress, and increased cancer risk that formula has been proven to cause (all of which are reduced by breastfeeding) results in an unnecessary toll on an already-overburdened healthcare system. A growing number of hospitals are realizing that limited funds are better spent on promoting breastfeeding education during pregnancy rather than creating an unnecessary dependence on the healthcare system later through use of artificial breast milk substitutes commonly referred to as infant formula.

Formula companies benignly claim they are providing a valuable product to new mothers who need to return to work in order to support their families. Needing formula, though, is obviously what creates the need to work in the first place. Breast milk is free! The irony is mind-boggling, and formula company executives are seriously misguided if they think infant formula is actually helping women achieve recognition and increased status in the workforce. Even for mothers who have no choice but to return to work at the conclusion of their maternity leave, a hospital-grade double breast pump can be purchased for a few hundred dollars, which is far less than what Enfamil charges for a year’s supply of formula. The $1500 to $2000 spent on formula during a baby’s first year does not include the additional medical bills that will result from avoidable illnesses that will occur during infancy and lifelong, so the true economic impact of using infant formula is difficult to measure long-term.

Breast milk offers immunities and is a biologically active and living substance. Formula confers no antibodies and is a static product that does not change in composition from one feeding to the next as breast milk does. Yet, formula manufacturers spend millions on advertising campaigns portraying formula as a choice that is nearly as good as breast milk. In reality, The World Health Organization ranks infant formula as the fourth recommended choice of infant feeding; breastfeeding, pumped breast milk from the baby’s mother, and donor breast milk from a milk bank all rank above it. Breastfeeding enhances immune function and reduces the incidence of illnesses such as ear infections, colds, respiratory ailments, gastronintestinal distress, childhood cancer, and lifelong risk of diabetes, cancer, obesity, and allergies. Enfamil, Similac, and Nestle cannot make similar claims. All they have been successful at doing is turning a formerly useless byproduct of cheese making-whey- into a somewhat edible, yet foul-smelling, product (questionably fit for human consumption) that is accompanied with the high cost of serious health consequences. Formula manufacturers spend millions annually on marketing campaigns to ensure a steady supply of new recruits.

It’s a sad commentary on American priorities when consumers spend more time and effort reading Consumer Reports when deciding what refrigerator to purchase, but spend virtually no time when deciding how they will feed their infants. The main cause of such a serious misalignment in priorities is the result of many consumers being susceptible to the surreptitious marketing campaigns publicized on T.V. and in print media. Formula ads are everywhere. Idyllic of images of beautiful women, even supermodels, feeding their babies formula have desensitized American consumers to the health consequences of using formula. It’s no wonder that so many consumers have fallen victim to what is clearly the greatest marketing scam and largest scientific experiment of our time. The late scientist Dr. Derrick Jelliffe summed it up best in a Wall Street Journal interview, “Hindsight shows the story of formula production to be a succession of errors. Each stumble is dealt with and heralded as yet another breakthrough, leading to further imbalances and then more modifications.”

Formula manufacturer Bright Beginnings needed supermodel Brooke Shields to sell their products. Realism won’t sell formula. A harrowed image of an overstressed parent sporting newly stained clothing from their infant’s latest projectile vomiting incident won’t sell formula. It needs to be portrayed as a modern, hip way of parenting in order to recruit new converts. Formula results in what is mistakenly believed to be a common infant ailment-spit up. Spit-up is a rare occurrence for breastfed babies, and the fact that it is viewed as an unavoidable nuisance of infancy clearly demonstrates how far corporate greed and aggressive infant marketing have separated us from nature. Several decades of research conducted in laboratories does not negate the fact that breastfeeding is an ingrained component of our evolutionary biological heritage and has withstood the test of time; humans have been breastfeeding for millennia, but infant formula has only been commercially-available for less than sixty years.

The horrific circumstances that result from unscrupulous formula manufacturers and their unethical marketing practices are even more tragic in Third World countries. Employees of infant formula companies sporting “uniforms” that are eerily reminiscent of uniforms that nurses wear enthusiastically distribute formula samples. They provide enough samples to new mothers to last a few weeks, just long enough to create an unnecessary dependence on the product and sabotage any potential for success at breastfeeding. The new mothers mistakenly believe they are being provided with nutrition offering the latest scientific advancements by actual health professionals with medical training (based on the white uniforms they wear). Combine this aggressive recruitment with the fact that the hospitals receive millions of dollars to build “modern” maternity wards which are intentionally located to sabotage breastfeeding-the maternity wards are on a separate floor at opposite ends of the hospital from the nurseries. Mothers leave the hospital with enough formula to last a few weeks and an 8-pound stranger, not exactly ideal circumstances for breastfeeding. Despite formula manufacturers’ denials, such alarming practices are still occurring.

Formula marketing campaigns in the U.S. used to be more successful partly because greedy doctors received personal financial incentives to aggressively promote infant formula. Fortunately, many doctors are now beginning to remember the Hippocratic Oath they took. Also, epidemiologically, studies have been more successful at pinpointing the harmful effects of formula. Just as it took decades for doctors to believe lung cancer and smoking were related, it also has taken decades to establish relationships between formula and multiple illnesses including cancer.

Only slightly over half of all new mothers even offer any breast milk to their newborns, and only 10% of babies are still being breastfed at one year, the current American Academy of Pediatrics recommended minimum. All marketing and advertising of infant formula in the U.S. violates the World Health Organization’s International Code on the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes. Clearly, it is the repetitive, serene images that new moms see advertised that has resulted in the U.S. having the lowest breastfeeding initiation rate of all industrialized nations.

Disadvantaged and minority children are at greater risk of being fed artificial breast milk substitutes thanks to our government’s WIC program. This creates an all too common and unfortunate scenario because disadvantaged children lack access to the quality healthcare they will need following their daily ingestion of formula.

The gross misrepresentation of infant formula on T.V. commercials borders on criminal, and considering 4 in every 1000 babies in the U.S. die as a result of being fed formula (according to the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences), it is inevitable that major lawsuits will eventually occur. Lactation activists worldwide delight in the realization that one day formula manufacturers will have their long overdue day in court.

Formula fed infants have greater risk of illnesses and death even in developed nations such as the U.S. The only hope that our nation has at addressing this sad, yet avoidable, reality is to ban the marketing of all artificial breast milk substitutes. When parents are less tempted and influenced by being bombarded with contrived images on T.V. commercials, they are more likely to make informed choices. The economic impact will be beneficial and far-reaching because it will hopefully ensure that the U.S. Government (through its WIC program) is no longer the largest consumer of infant formula.

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