Thursday, October 12, 2006

What about babies who cannot be breastfed?

One of the emails today was from a campaign supporter in Australia who raised the Nestlé boycott at a play group where Nestlé's flavoured straws were being promoted. The playgroup leader became cross with her, arguing that starving babies need formula.

This is, of course, a misunderstanding of what the campaign is all about. We campaign so that baby food companies abide by the marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes does not ban the sale of breastmilk substitutes. It is there to protect all mothers, whether they breastfeed or bottle feed. The Code bans the promotion of breastmilk substitutes, that is advertising, free samples, targeting mothers and so on. Companies are limited to providing scientific and factual information to health workers. It is for health workers to advise parents, not companies that make money out of mothers not breastfeeding.

For orphans breastmilk substitutes are clearly necessary - though in some cultures other mothers may breastfeed the child or donor milk is an option. In emergency situations where infants are sometimes separated from their mothers, they need to be fed and need a breastmilk substitute. There is a misconception that in emergencies, such as droughts and famines, mothers cannot breastfeed. However, often the healthiest people in a refuge camp are the breastfed infants, because they receive the nutrition they need and are protected from infections when hygience is poor. Members of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) have first-hand experience of working in emergency situations, ensuring orphaned or separated infants are cared for. Mothers have been helped with breastfeeding or even re-lactating if their milk production has been interrupted through separation or stress. Mothers who have to or wish to bottle feed have been trained to do so safely - something that does not happen when well-meaning people send donations of formula with labels in the wrong language. It is better to buy it locally. You can find out more about infant feeding in emergency situations on the IBFAN website.

In the past we would get an email through our website every now and then from a mother telling of her problems with breastfeeding and saying we should think about people like her. Our argument is not with mothers it is with companies that break the rules. To try to explain this better we put a page on our website explaining how our work is to help mothers who bottle feed as well as those who breastfeed. For example, we campaign to improve the composition of formulas and for clearer labelling and instructions. We have campaigned about the high price charged for formula - it is one of the most profitable products on the supermarket shelves and companies could take a smaller cut for the benefit of poorer mothers - a permanent price reduction, not one for promotional pruposes. In Italy it was found that companies were secretly agreeing to keep the price high and this was exposed by our partners there.

At the same time we cannot shy away from telling the truth about how baby food companies push their products and the disadvantages to health of artificial milks and the impact in terms of needless suffering and deaths around the world. Mothers should have the right to choose how to feed their infants, but they also have the right for it to be an informed choice.

A strategy of the baby food companies to continue with business as usual is to spread misinformation about their products. And about campaigners. For example, Nestlé's Senior Policy Advisor spoke to a committee of the UK Methodist Church in November 2004. The minutes are public. They record: "she argued that if you banned infant formula, as she claimed Baby Milk Action seemed to wish, you would be condemning babies to much inferior breast milk substitutes."

Which brings us back to the comment made by the play group leader in Australia.

It is a lesson for all campaigners. Beware of what companies say behind your back. If they cannot give good responses to your reasonable arguments, they may well invent unreasonable ones to knock down.

1 comment:

Jen-Jen said...

I totally agree with everything you say. I was so saddened by all the moms of babies born around Hurricane Katrina who didn't breastfeed and therefore had nothing to feed their babies. Such a tragic waste of live-giving breastmilk. Even mothers of newborns, who could have breastfed because their milk had not yet dried up, were depicted on TV as not having anything to feed their babies without formula and clean water. So crazy!