The Trump administration’s consistent tendency to place corporate profits over human health was on particularly egregious display this month when it sought to block the introduction of a United Nations resolution that called on governments to rein in the inaccurate and misleading marketing of breast milk substitutes.
While the US succeeded in getting Ecuador to back down from introducing the resolution by threatening it with trade sanctions if it did not remove language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding,” as well as language concerning misleading marketing claims about infant formula, in the end the resolution was adopted, after delegates from Russia introduced it.
Trump administration officials have repeatedly blocked environmental and safety protections aimed at promoting human health and well-being in order to give corporations free rein in extracting maximum profits.
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For example, in May 2018, the Trump administration’s US Department of Agriculture autocratically canceled new rules that had been negotiated over several years by advocates for safe and healthy agriculture, instead leaving in place longstanding loopholes that allow the poultry industry to over-use antibiotics, which has been shown to increase antibiotic resistance in both humans and livestock.
A current “children’s climate lawsuit” initiated by Our Children’s Trust contends that in its reckless promotion of fossil fuels produced by the gas and oil industry, the US government has failed to manage natural resources for future generations. As reported in Inside Climate News, an attorney for the children said the government is “pulling out every frivolous motion they can to dodge the case.”
Finally, this July, for no apparent reason, the Department of Health and Human Services, took down the National Guideline Clearinghouse, a 20-year-long online database of medical treatment guidelines relied upon by people around the world.
The US delegation’s resistance to the breastfeeding resolution represented yet another example of this cavalier pattern of negligence toward health — this time in the form of an effort to protect the profits of infant formula manufacturers.
Misleading Marketing Targets Poorest Communities
As recently as February 2018, the Guardian reported that multinational corporations such as Nestlé have sought to maintain their business through misleading marketing:
Formula milk companies are continuing to use aggressive, clandestine and often illegal methods to target mothers in the poorest parts of the world to encourage them to choose powdered milk over breastfeeding, a new investigation shows.
Representatives from Nestlé, Abbott, Mead Johnson and Wyeth (now owned by Nestlé) were described as a constant presence in hospitals in the Philippines … [where] they reportedly hand out “infant nutrition” pamphlets to mothers, which appear to be medical advice but in fact recommend specific formula brands and sometimes have money-off coupons. Hospital staff were also found to be recommending specific formula brands in lists of “essential purchases” handed to new mothers.
Behind closed doors, the formula companies are pushing hard to maintain their right to sell formulas to babies just over 12 months old — so-called “follow-up formulas,” Nusa Urbancic, campaign director of the Changing Markets Foundation, told Truthout. Even though babies can eat more solid food and drink cow’s milk by that age, rendering follow-up formula unnecessary, through maintaining those product lines, manufacturers can continue to build sales, while creating inroads to sell parents infant formula as well.
Substituting a commercial formula for breast milk may not sound like a big deal, but there are many reasons why corporate efforts to push poor mothers who are able to breastfeed to use formula instead are leading to worse health outcomes. Diluting the formula to save cost can result in malnutrition.
“The scientific and research community is somewhere between astonished, perplexed and outraged,” said Bruce German, a chemist, professor and researcher in the University of California, Davis’s Foods for Health Institute. German has studied lactation and human milk for over 20 years. The Trump administration’s resistance to the breastfeeding resolution “makes no scientific sense,” he told Truthout, adding that breast milk is “a perfect food for babies” that is ever-changing to match the needs of infants.
“A significant portion of the mother’s hormones, neurological factors and antibodies pass through milk to her child,” German told Truthout. “Formula can’t do that.”
“Infant formula has all essential nutrients. It’s good as an alternative, but in no way is it comparable,” German says. “Breast milk is an incredibly dynamic system of nourishment and communication … it’s so much more than a simple formula.”
Health Benefits of Breast Milk
While formula offers a vital option for parents who are unable to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, it does not offer the same powerful health benefits as breast milk.
Michelle Brenner — a pediatrician, associate professor at East Virginia Medical School, and medical director of a milk bank that distributes surplus breast milk to neonatal units around the US for use with premature babies — cites a meta-analysis of 9,000 abstracts that compared breast milk to formula and found that breastfeeding conferred several short-term health benefits for infants.
She told Truthout, “Consuming breast milk reduced ear infections by 23 percent. Infants who were exclusively breast fed for 3-6 months (vs. exclusively formula fed) had a risk reduction of 50 percent. There was a 64 percent risk reduction of gastrointestinal ailments; a 19 percent reduction of childhood ALL leukemia; and a 36 percent reduction of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).”
Studies also show signature benefits to birth mothers, Brenner told Truthout. She added:
Papers from 2009 – 2013 showed reduced bleeding post-delivery, reduced glucose in diabetic mothers, reduced post-partum anemia, and improved weight loss after pregnancy. A 2009 paper in Obstetrics and Gynecology found reduced dietary cholesterol, and reduced risk of heart disease. A 2013 study in the same publication found that if 90 percent of mothers were able to breast feed for the recommended one year after each birth, US women might be spared 53,000 cases of hypertension, 14,00 heart attacks, and 5,000 cases of breast cancer with a savings of $17 million.
“The health protective benefits to the mother are cumulative,” Brenner said. “With each one of her infants a mother breastfeeds, the more benefits she gets, too.”
Immune Protection From Breast Milk
“Beyond the calories and the snuggling and the closeness, breast milk contains 700 different species of bacteria,” said Victoria Maizes, MD, the executive director of the University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, and a professor at the University of Arizona.
Over the past two decades, a revolution in human biology has dispelled the outdated scientific view that all microbes are bad, and that killing them via antibiotics is the best way to protect health, Maizes explained. New research into the microbiome — the community of microbial organisms that co-exist within our bodies — is building a scientific consensus that healthy microbes support life. Instead of seeking to kill all bacteria, the goal is to colonize and grow healthy bacteria, especially in the gut, which is the locus of the lifelong immune system.
For an infant, this process begins with a voyage down the birth canal, where microbes in the mother’s vaginal tract colonize the baby’s nascent microbiome. Breastfeeding further builds that microbiome, and with it, the baby’s lifelong immunity, scientists have recently discovered.
The fact that breast milk contains some 200 complex sugars called oligosaccharides has puzzled researchers for many years. As German recalls, the persistent question was: “Why have such a high proportion of a substance in milk that babies can’t digest?”
Ultimately, German and scientists came to realize that oligosaccharides nourish the infant’s microbiome. It was a big a-ha moment. Oligosaccharides were food for Bifidobacterium longum infantis, a key microbe conferred on newborns in the birth canal. Feeding on the oligosaccharides from mother’s milk, B. infantis multiply to fill the newborn’s lower intestine, pushing out other, more pathogenic microbes.
“When these are there, it means that the immune system has been educated correctly. If there are too many pathogens, then your immune system reacts to pollen or food or other substances,” says German.
According to Ed Yong, writing in The New Yorker, oligosaccharides can “block a roll call of gut villains, including Salmonella; Listeria; Vibrio cholerae, the culprit behind cholera; Campylobacter jejuni, the most common cause of bacterial diarrhea; Entamoeba histolytica, a voracious amoeba that causes dysentery and kills a hundred thousand people every year; and many virulent strains of E. coli.”
Even though infant formula provides a nutritional baseline, the absence of these combined immune-building factors weakens the infant immune system during a crucial developmental window, according to Kristin Lawless, the author of Formerly Known as Food: How the Industrial Food System Is Changing Our Minds, Bodies, and Culture. Although some formula products contain probiotics, none contain B. infantalis, says Brenner. Nor can a product that contains a single polysaccharide be considered equivalent to the 100 oligosaccharides the average mother’s milk will contain.
Due to health reasons, work schedules or other factors, some parents also find it easier to offer both breast milk and infant formula. Brenner contends that even short-term breastfeeding is beneficial.
According to Brenner, the decision to breastfeed is usually determined within the first two weeks after birth. If a mother is persuaded to try a “free sample” of infant formula (which food manufacturers like Nestlé have widely distributed, particularly in developing countries) the interruption of milk production can make it harder to nurse, unless feeding is resumed promptly.
Breast milk is free, while infant formula is costly. As a result, mothers with less economic resources, both in the US and abroad, often water down the formula preparation, which can lead to infant malnutrition.
According to Helen Keller International, “Children are at the greatest risk for malnutrition during their first 1,000 days — or from conception to their second birthday. Proper nutrition during this critical development stage can mean the difference between life and death.”
The Ongoing Fight to Rein In the Formula Industry
Given the many immune system benefits of breast milk, it’s particularly sinister that the Trump administration has sought to stand in the way of efforts to rein in manufacturers’ predatory efforts to persuade communities with the least resources and medical care to choose formula, even as well-to-do parents in wealthier countries increasingly embrace breastfeeding.
The recent attack at the UN makes public this administration’s ongoing battle to prioritize formula manufacturers over children, according to organizations such as Changing Markets and Helen Keller International. At an upcoming meeting in 2018, the Codex Alimentarius Commission — the global foods standards group sponsored by the World Health Organization and Food and Agricultural Organization of the UN — will review follow-up formulas, along with all formulas for babies and children of different ages. While the Trump administration continues to push for its profit-centric agenda, no matter what the cost to health, according to a new policy brief paper, Helen Keller International sees the Codex meeting as “an important opportunity to protect breastfeeding and improve child nutrition — a major contribution to reducing preventable child deaths.”
Meanwhile scientists like Bruce German will continue to study the miraculous properties of breast milk. German points out that this research, though 20 years old, is still in its infancy. Why? “Because,” German says, “instead of investigating the beginning of life, millions, if not billions of dollars, are spent on medical research focused only on the diseases of middle-aged white men.”