The U.S. Blocked A Global Breastfeeding Initiative In Order To Benefit Formula Companies

Universal breastfeeding could prevent 800,000 child deaths per year around the world, but the U.S. strong-armed other countries against it.

Photo by Leo Ramirez/AFP/Getty Images.

Universal breastfeeding could prevent 800,000 child deaths per year around the world, and would produce $300 billion in savings from reduced health care costs, according to a 2016 study by the peer-reviewed medical journal The Lancet.


But despite the numerous studies that suggest the benefits of breastfeeding, especially in poor and developing countries, the U.S. government recently refused to support a World Health Organization initiative to promote breastfeeding.

In a startling New York Times report, officials from other countries have spoken out about how the U.S. threatened them if they did not change the way they promoted breastfeeding to its citizens. The U.S. also wanted to see an increase in pushing infant formulas to mothers.

The uproar by the U.S. began in spring after the World Health Assembly presented a resolution in Geneva, Switzerland. The resolution by the U.N.-backed group asked that government officials promote and support breastfeeding and curb “misleading marketing of breast milk substitute,” along with adding restrictions in how they market other food products that could have negative effects on children, according to Times report.

The U.S. asked to remove the passage that would hold companies accountable for misleading claims about infant food products with spurious health benefits. The move was thought to be influenced by large corporations who produce infant formula. The U.S. has the second biggest market for infant food sales, after China. Breastfeeding rates have increased in the U.S. lately, which is a threat to formula companies.

But officials didn’t respond to the American government’s demands, so U.S. representatives resorted to blackmail-like tactics.

[quote position="full" is_quote="true"]We feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.[/quote]

American pressure

According to officials from Ecuador — who initiated the resolution — the U.S. threatened to cut military aid and use trade measures against them if they didn’t support the American government’s position.

The threats involved more than a dozen other government officials from various countries who chose not to speak out in fear of retaliation, according to the Times report. Ecuador ultimately backed down.

After the measure was stalled due to Americans’ nonparticipation, Russian officials, however, did speak out against U.S. threats.

Then they stepped up to help launch the resolution.

Photo by Noel Celis AFP/Getty Images.

“We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world,” an anonymous Russian delegate told the Times.

The Times reported that the U.S. didn’t threaten the Russians.

In the end, the resolution went through, despite the showdown forced by the U.S. government.

Battle over breastfeeding

In a response to the Times report, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said that they wanted to make it easier for mothers to have options about their children’s well-being.

“The issues being debated were not about whether one supports breastfeeding,” HHS Spokesperson Caitlin Oakley told CNN:

“The United States was fighting to protect women’s abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies.”

However, as HuffPost senior reporter Zach Carter points out, the U.S. has a long history of favoring corporations rather than human interest. “The U.S. has a terrible record on public health and international trade, going back to the Bill Clinton presidency,” Carter tweeted. He added that “a stated goal of U.S. trade policy under Obama was to raise global drug prices to pad profits for U.S. pharmaceutical companies.”

According to The Statistics Portal, the U.S. baby food market is projected to grow from $54 billion in 2015 to $76 billion by 2021. Yet formula makers have recently come under fire for claiming health benefits for their breastmilk substitutes, including multinational corporation Nestlé, which was found to have misled consumers around the world, according to a study by the Changing Markets Foundation.

“We have come to understand that companies manipulate consumers’ emotional responses to sell a variety of products, but this behavior is especially unethical when it comes to the health of vulnerable babies,” Nusa Urbancic, campaign director for the Changing Markets Foundation, told the Guardian.

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