Monday, September 15, 2008

Formula deaths in China are no reason for Western gloating

You have probably seen coverage of the contaminated formula in China. This is from the Boston Herald:

So far, 1,253 babies have become ill from tainted baby formula manufactured by the Sanlu Group, and 340 of them are in the hospital, with 53 of them in serious condition, Health Ministry spokesman Ma Xiaowei said in a news conference. He acknowledged that two infants died in Gansu Province, a poor, dusty region in the nation’s arid northwest.

The contamination is believed to be melamine and it is suggested that some dairy farmers have added this to milk so it gives a higher protein reading in quality tests, but it is harmful.

Obviously the formula needs to be tracked and recalled as quickly as possible, the affected infants cared for and compensation provided and better controls put in place.

But there are aspects of the reporting of this story that strike me as both odd and symptomatic of how much of the media views developing countries and infant feeding.

Firstly, it is undeniably a tragedy that so many infants have become sick and two have died. The deaths are due to the formula not coming up to quality standards. But many, many more babies die every year and many, many more become sick because formula does not come up to the standard of breastmilk. In 2006/2007 we were campaigning in support of our partners in the Philippines where the World Health Organisation says that 60,000 infants die every year due to inappropriate feeding and was calling for stronger controls on the marketing of formula. Interesting the media in this story was an uphill struggle. It took petitions, demonstrations and the involvement of some campaigning journalists to bring this tragedy to a wider audience. See:

Secondly, this story provides the media with an opportunity to attack 'inferior' Chinese industry. The Boston Herald story is headlined: "Tainted formula again raises concerns about Chinese products".

When a child died in Belgium after being fed with Nestlé formula contaminated with Enterobacter Sakazakii there was fairly widespread media coverage - this was a western baby after all - but I don't remember any headlines about concern over Swiss products. Or even Nestlé products specifically - and hardly a year goes by when it does not recall formula somewhere in the world due to quality problems. Earlier this year, for example, its formula was recalled in South Africa. See:

In South Africa Nestlé promotes its formula as providing 'protection' to babies - despite the Department of Health saying such claims breach labelling laws. See:

It seems to me there is a sub-text in the western media at least, running down producers from other countries in favour of western companies.

Yet, read beyond the headline in the Boston Herald and you find that the Chinese company that made the formula is owned 43% by Fonterra, a New Zealand company. It was the discovery of the problem in New Zealand that led to the alert in China.

Consider a little further why there is a growth in formula use in China. It is undergoing rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, but that does not have to mean the fall in breastfeeding rates that is being experienced. Part of the cultural change is prompted by western companies. For example, Nutricia, now owned by Danone, promoted its 'Kissing my Baby' formula in China in 2004 with this gift CD with children's music, exposed by our partners in the International Code Documentation Centre.

We joined the campaign, calling on supporters to send message to the Chief Executive. See:

In 2005 we campaigned against a strategy launched by Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, Nestlé Chairman and then CEO. He targeted pregnant and lactating women with 'nutrition corners' in supermarkets. These had Nestlé formula for young children and suggested that if mothers wanted to breastfeed they needed to buy expensive supplements. See:

Inspectors are now reportedly spreading across China to check all formula manufacturers. Let us hope the manufacturers act in response. When the inspectors found excess iodine in Nestlé Neslac formula in 2005, it at first refused to recall the formula. Bad publicity and a consumer boycott caused it to change its mind. The China Daily reported: "Nestle was caught remarkably flat-footed for a multinational firm of its global standing. Many believe it reacted with the speed and alacrity of a sailor drunk on shore leave."

It was to try to recover market share that Mr. Brabeck set up the 'Nutrition Corners' in supermarkets.

In the Belgian case, Nestlé recalled the formula in the European Union following an order from the European Food Standards Agency, but as Switzerland was not covered, it did not recall formula from the same batch there. Nestlé is still refusing to put warnings on its labels that could prevent a repeat of the Belgian case and reduce other illness that may be due to similar contamination. Powdered formula is not sterile, but parents are not warned of this or the simple steps to reduce the risks. See:

So yes, there is good reason to be concerned about the deaths and illness in China and the failing of the New Zealand/Chinese company. We are certainly in favour of more effective regulatory systems.

But it is important not to be taken in by the anti-Chinese headlines. Many, many more children are suffering due to the way transnationals push their products in ways that undermine breastfeeding, companies that are slow to act when their products are even further compromised with contaminants or missing ingredients.

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