Sunday, August 02, 2009
Professor Kramer sets record straight over 'breastfeeding controversy' articles
Professor Kramer has given an interview to the Independent on Sunday explaining how journalists misrepresented his research and what he said about it when writing articles suggesting the benefits of breastfeeding are questionable.
These articles appeared shortly before the UK Advertising Standards Authority published a ruling against Danone/Milupa's claim that Aptamil is the 'best follow-on formula' and claims about it building a child's immunity, leading to references to the 'controversy' over the benefits of breastfeeding appearing in some reports. Now it is World Breastfeeding Week, there is the same danger. See:
Whether the hidden hand of the formula industry was behind the articles, or it was simply journalists looking to stir up an argument and being sloppy or dishonest with their representation of Professor Kramer's research is probably something we will never know.
However, this is what Professor Kramer has said to the Independent on Sunday, see:
"Journalists certainly have the right to express their own opinions, but not to misquote experts they choose to interview in order to support those opinions. That sort of sensationalist journalist would not surprise me from the tabloids, but I had expected better from The Atlantic and The Times."
The article continues:
The Times quoted Kramer, who is based at McGill University, Montreal, as saying there was "very little evidence" breastfeeding reduces the risk of a range of diseases from leukaemia to heart disease. Yet, what he actually said was: "The existing evidence suggests that breastfeeding may protect against the risk of leukaemia, lymphoma, inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, heart disease and blood pressure." All he did concede was that we need "more and better studies to pursue these links", a common cry from academics lacking in funding.
As for the article merely casting him "in the camp that believes that breastfeeding will turn out to have a slight effect on brain development", well, that hardly squared with his life's work, he said yesterday. "There is an IQ advantage to breastfeeding by as much as three or four points. It's not the difference between Einstein and a mental retard at an individual level, but it means having a smarter population on average, fewer children with school difficulties, and more gifted children."
He added: "There really isn't any controversy about which mode of feeding is more beneficial for the baby and the mother, but when you read the article in The Times it sounds like there is." Furthermore, he points out: "I'm not aware of any studies that have observed any health benefits of formula feeding. That's important, and any mother weighing the benefits of breastfeeding vs formula feeding needs to know that."
Professor Kramer also told the journalists that the benefits of breastfeeding are so clear there is no need for breastfeeding advocates to overstate the case. This was flipped to suggest he was condemning advocates for overstating the case.
Speaking on the BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour programme, Professor Kramer again commented on how the quote attributed to him regarding the evidence for the benefits of breastfeeding was incorrect. He did suggest greater research was needed and that public health advocates should not rely on older studies, particularly with regard to allergy prevention. You can listen to Professor Kramer and Professor Mary Renfrew at:
He stressed there have been no health benefits found for formula feeding. The discussion also covered why the issue had blown up, the support needed for breastfeeding and that mothers who use formula should not be made to feel guilty. He stated clearly that he has no problems with the expression 'breast is best' and that there is no question that 'breastfeeding is better than formula feeding where it is possible'.
The articles have led to these misrepresentations of Professor Kramer's work and statements being reproduced in other reports - such as some on the ASA ruling - and on talkboards, causing harm that will likely echo on for years and undermine the right of mothers to accurate information.
Conspiracy or cock-up? It is always difficult to judge.
Even the Independent on Sunday article, setting out to set the record straight, misleadingly labels Baby Milk Action as 'anti-formula campaigners', both unwarranted and an industry portrayal we are trying to escape. It states clearly on our home page 'Baby Milk Action is not anti-baby milk', so what we have here is probably a journalist in too much of a hurry. But we have to live with the consequences.
To set that record straight, let me stress we are 'infant health campaigners' and work both to protect breastfeeding and to protect babies fed on formula. We do this through monitoring baby food company policies and practices against the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly - companies are expected to abide by this code independently of whether it has been introduced in government measures.
We work for legislation implementing the Code and Resolutions and hold companies to account through campaigns such as the Nestlé boycott, which targets the worst of the companies. This does not make us anti-formula - as it explains on our home page:
"Breastmilk substitutes are legitimate products for when a child is not breastfed and does not have access to expressed or donor breastmilk. Companies should comply with composition and labelling requirements and other Code requirements to reduce risks - independently of government measures. Parents have a right to accurate, independent information. Baby Milk Action is not anti-baby milk. Our work protects all mothers and infants from irresponsible marketing."