Bottle-feeding, good or bad? UN agency takes critical vote
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Still, the advocates believe that in poor countries a vast number of young mothers urgently need help from the international community. Too often, they argue, many of these women find themselves caught in a cross fire of slick arguments that they do not understand. Says Edward Baer of the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility in New York:Skip to next paragraph
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"There is simply too much danger of women in developing countries being enticed by infant-formula advertizing to abandon breast-feeding, of the high cost of formula resulting in poor women diluting it to nutritionally dangerous levels, or of powdered formula being mixed with polluted water."
The number of malnourished babies in the world has reached the 300 million mark, estimates Dr. Michael Latham, director of the Program on International Nutrition at Cornell University. Bottle-feeding is directly related to the main illnesses associated with that malnutrition, he believes.
To help turn the tide, the WHO code would urge governments to prohibit both the promotion of breast-milk substitutes to the general public and the distribution of free formula samples to pregnant women.
The code doesm recognize the need for infant formula to be available in case a mother is unable to breast-feed. But it urges that formula-company employees should not try to educate mothers, should not be given bonuses or quotas for sale of breast-milk substitutes, and that health care facilities not be used to promote or advertize of infant formula.
The code also urges that infant formula labels provide information about the correct use of products in a way that will not discourage breast-feeding.
Ironically both the infant formula companies and the US government were actively involved in the writing of the code they now oppose. Various company spokesman interviewed by the Monitor said they actually agree with the board principles and purpose of the code.
Nevertheless Mead-Johnson's Gary Mize explains that the corporations' recommendations for the code were largely ignored by the WHO.
The point puzzles one US government official, who says that years of negotiation and mutual compromise among the UN agencies, US government, formula companies, and health officials had gone into the writing of that code.
"We worked long and hard to get a compromise code that would realistically be workable for all parties involved. But now all of that work has been scuttled as our government has changed its view as a result of the infant formula companies' lobbying."
The US decision to oppose the code has also deeply disturbed a range of top-ranking development experts in the US government agencies. The experts, who declined to be identified at this writing, plan to make public May 18 their concern that the US posture signals to the world that America cares more about corporate activities than about the health of children, that it could endanger cooperation with developing countries and many joint ventures already under way in the area of infant health.
In the final analysis, there is something about the code that rings "too legalistic" for the formula industry and the Reagan administration -- despite the fact that the code provisions are called "recommendations."
If there is to be regulation, the companies want it to be voluntary and adapted to the needs and conditions of each country. Bristol-Myers and Abbott-Ross Laboratories are two American formula producers that have acknowledged a need to curb advertising that could discourage breast-feeding. (American Home Products and Switzerland's Nestle Company have not.)
Bristol-Myers also claims to have clamped down on employees who have not done this.