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Milk formula goes on trial in Asia

Health experts at a summit in the Philippines this week are urging East Asian countries to tout breast milk's benefits.

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Later Tuesday, the Philippine government ordered the recall of millions of cans of baby formula produced by US producer Wyeth, one of the companies behind the lawsuit. The government said the product may have been contaminated after a typhoon flooded a warehouse last year.

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On formula, a question of intentions

Milk companies insist that they're offering a reliable alternative for mothers who are unable or unwilling to breast-feed their infant.

Tracey Noe, a spokeswoman for Chicago-based Abbott Laboratories, told the Associated Press on Tuesday that no companies disputed the benefits of breast milk over bottle-feeding. Abbott Labs, for example is a supporter of "Business Backs Breast-feeding," a program designed to help businesses meet the needs of breast-feeding mothers upon their return to work.

"The real focus here is that infant formula is the only healthy, safe, physician-recommended alternative for moms who can't breast-feed," Ms. Noe said. Abbott produces Similac, an infant formula.

That isn't the message that Ding Bing says she got from her managers at Nestlé in China where she worked for five years as a marketing rep for infant formula. Ms. Ding, who spoke by telephone from the UNICEF/WHO conference, said the Swiss company told expecting mothers attending antenatal classes that Nestlé's Good Start formula was superior and that many of them would be unable to produce sufficient breast milk for their baby.

"The company told the staff that infant formula is better. It didn't tell us that mother's milk is enough; they couldn't tell us the truth," she says.

Ding quit her job last year and now runs a breast-feeding website and volunteers on weekends to teach new mothers how to nurse. She says young women in Chinese cities are misled by false advertising and their own doctors, who are paid by formula companies to give out information sheets and free samples of their products.

"We are told that formula has additives and ingredients, that it's good for the child," says Yeong Joo Kean, a Malaysian lawyer for the International Baby Food Action Network, an advocacy group. "For this region, it's just so enticing, it's seductive. I'm not surprised that parents are falling for it."

Breast milk contains antibodies and enzymes that speed the healthy growth and development of infants and may also lower the risk of chronic diseases later in life, according to WHO.

Struggling parents who opt for formula often dilute the product or substitute rice flour and other powders that lack essential nutrients, say health experts. In the Philippines, where bottle-feeding costs a minimum $43 a month, an estimated 16,000 infants under 5 die annually because of such practices, according to UNICEF. Campaigners point to Cambodia as a sign of what can go right. A national campaign there has raised breast-feeding rates at six months to 60 percent, up from 10 percent in 2000. Over the same period, child mortality fell by one-third, a huge gain that can only be explained by the switch to breast milk, says Karen Codling, a nutritionist for UNICEF.

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