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When Mother's Milk Is Just Not Good Enough

June 26, 2005|Charlotte Allen | Charlotte Allen is author of "The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus." She co-edits the InkWell blog for the Independent Women's Forum.

The U.N.'s World Health Organization approved a resolution last month that, if adopted, would require the manufacturers of powdered baby formula to issue warnings that their products might contain "pathogenic microorganisms" such as salmonella bacteria.

That sounds scary -- and it's meant to be. It is as though, after the 1993 epidemic of food poisoning at a Jack in the Box in Washington state, Congress required every hamburger sold in the U.S. to include a warning of possible E. coli contamination.

The WHO's resolution is wrong. Instead of helping infants around the world, it would hurt them by discouraging mothers from using formula even when it is the best alternative available. The Food and Drug Administration has recognized that infant formula from reputable companies, manufactured under stringent government specifications, is perfectly safe and nutritious, provided that precautions are taken against stray bacterial contaminants.

The proposed requirement should be seen for what it is: part of a propaganda war by breast-feeding supporters who see their cause as one of ideology. As far back as 1981, they persuaded the WHO to adopt a code forbidding manufacturers from advertising their products and banning pictures of babies, mothers, cute animals and similar graphics from labels. Later, the organization declared that infant formula was not a food but a "nutritional medicine" to be regulated accordingly.

The United States has declined to follow those restrictions, which is why you still see babies and bunny rabbits on cans of powdered formula here.

The breast-feeding crusade does have valid points. Mother's milk is nutritionally superior to manufactured formulas. It costs nothing to prepare. A woman need not worry about following instructions to ensure that her own milk remains nutritious and safe.

In developing countries, bottle-feeding can present health problems, but they have nothing to do with the quality of infant formula. Rather, they arise from lack of drinkable water for mixing, primitive cooking facilities that make it difficult to sterilize bottles and nipples, and grinding poverty itself. Impoverished bottle-feeding mothers, especially in famished sub-Saharan Africa, sometimes stretch out expensive formula by over-diluting it, with disastrous nutritional consequences.

Nonetheless, fewer than 35% of the world's infants are breast-fed exclusively for the first four months. Even in the U.S., where breast-feeding is popular and 70% of women nurse babies at birth, the numbers fall off quickly after a few months. There are many reasons: an inadequate milk supply, breast infections or irritations that can make nursing painful, and 21st century working conditions and schedules that don't permit trips home to feed the baby or even the use of a breast pump.

In Africa, those problems are compounded by HIV/AIDS. U.N. statistics indicate that 90% of the 800,000 African children under age 14 who became HIV-positive in 2001 acquired the virus from their mothers -- by pregnancy, childbirth or lactation. Most physicians recommend that HIV-positive women (58% of the 29.4 million sub-Saharan AIDS population) not nurse their children.

The breast-feeding ideologues, however, refuse to give significance to these very real conditions. In 1977, the militants launched a boycott (which is technically still in effect) against Nestle. The company had donated free formula to famine-stricken African women who were too malnourished to nurse. That, in turn, caused their milk supplies to dry up. Many babies died. Hence, Nestle was "killing babies."

To this day, the La Leche League, a leading breast-feeding organization, and other groups blame the formula makers for the 1.5 million non-breast-fed babies who die each year, ignoring the medical, cultural and economic circumstances that often doom infants. Big corporations make -- horrors -- profits on formula sales, so they must be duly demonized.

At the prodding of the militants, the WHO now recommends that women nurse at least until the child is 2, which would be quite a cultural sea change unless you live in a hippie commune. Other proposals call for counseling, presumably at taxpayer expense, and new laws requiring employers to provide on-site nursing and breast-pumping facilities. A statement by La Leche League in May declared that breast-feeding "challenges the view of breasts as only sex objects." That's a long way from infants' health.

Breast-feeding is a good thing. What is not good is to use government to terrorize women into abandoning a safe and nutritious substitute that millions of them have chosen for health or economic reasons. In sub-Saharan Africa, where per capita income is under $500 a year in many countries, where jobs, food and cash are matters of life and death for both sexes, and where HIV infection is rampant, it is quasi-criminal to ignore these problems in the name of ideology. Better to spend the money giving these countries the decent water supply that, more than anything else, would help the infant death rate fall.

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