A report in the New York Times alleged that US officials pressured several member nations of the World Health Organization (WHO), saying if they did not also oppose a resolution to encourage breastfeeding, the US would punish them with trade moves and reduce military assistance.
The resolution passed at the WHA in Geneva, Switzerland, but not before several countries, including Ecuador, Uruguay and Mexico withdrew their support.
Patti Rundall, policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action, spoke to DairyReporter about the US’ actions and the 'chilling effect' it could have on governments.
“We know that the US has no intention of bringing in laws to control marketing at home, so this threatening of less powerful countries with less favorable trade terms and a withdrawal of other support if they refuse to agree with them is simply unacceptable,” she said.
“Hopefully by exposing the tactics we can shame them and contain the damage.”
The health benefits of breastfeeding have been supported by decades of research. Formula alternatives are necessary for babies and mothers unable to breastfeed, but the WHO resolution would warn parents against the profit-driven marketing from baby formula companies. The US wanted to alter the language of the resolution by removing the suggestion that governments “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.”
Lucy Sullivan is executive director at 1,000 Days, a global nonprofit dedicated to improving the health and nutrition of babies in their first 1,000 days of life. She released a statement calling out the US and major corporations for angling for profits rather than the health of infants.
“It was clear at the World Health Assembly, as it is now, that the Trump Administration is following the lead of the powerful infant formula industry as they work to undermine breastfeeding and weaken measures that protect parents and children from the misleading and unethical tactics they use to push their products,” Sullivan said.
The Infant Nutrition Council of America, an association of infant formula manufacturers including Abbott Nutrition and Gerber Products, released a statement expressing support for the WHA resolution and breastfeeding.
"Some of the World Health Assembly resolution’s draft language was very broad and would have imposed severe restrictions on all milk products for older infants and young children up to three years old, as well as limited consumers’ access to information. This is what triggered inquiries to the U.S. government to review the language," the council said.
Nestlé also weighed in on the debate, backing breastfeeding as the best option for babies up to six months old.
"Nestlé strongly supports breastfeeding and has not wavered on this position. We have not, nor would we ever, lobby any governments—including the US government—to oppose breastfeeding policies anywhere in the world. Nestlé believes that breastfeeding is best for babies. Full stop," Nestlé said.
The US denied any wrongdoing on Monday following public backlash. President Donald Trump tweeted a statement saying “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty.” He also referred to the media reports as 'fake news.'
However, Sullivan took issue with this as well.
“Despite claims to the contrary, there was nothing in the original World Health Assembly resolution or WHO documents that called for limiting or denying women’s access to infant formula. This is disinformation pushed by the formula industry and amplified by the Trump Administration,” she said.
“Moreover, it is wrong to suggest, as the President did, that infant formula is a solution to malnutrition and poverty. In fact, research conducted by 1,000 Days together with the World Bank, WHO, UNICEF and others shows the opposite: countries lose billions of dollars each year in the form of avoidable health care costs and lower wages as a result of low breastfeeding rates.”