Source: Common Dreams
In May, the government of Ecuador came to the World Health Organization (WHO) assembly with a resolution on breastfeeding. What worried the government of Ecuador, and many other governments of the Global South, is the behavior of large corporations—Nestlé in the lead. These corporations that sell infant formula have wanted to promote the use of substitutes to breast milk, especially in places such as Ecuador.
The month before—in April 2018—the WHO and UNICEF jointly put out guidelines to support breastfeeding in health facilities. These “Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding” assist health care workers to encourage breastfeeding rather than to encourage the use of infant formulas. Breastfeeding babies in their first two years, say these UN agencies, would save the lives of more than 820,000 children under the age of five. “Breastfeeding saves lives. Its benefits help keep babies healthy in their first days and last well into adulthood,” said UNICEF’s executive director Henrietta H. Fore.
At the WHO Assembly, the United States government objected to the Ecuador proposal. The U.S. wanted the WHO to remove the statement “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” from the resolution. Why would the U.S. government oppose this statement? An employee of the Health and Human Services Department of the U.S. government told me bitterly that this has to do with corporate pressure. Corporations that make infant formula have long caviled at the restrictions they face in marketing their product.
Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes
These restrictions came from the May 1981 WHO-UNICEF International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes. That Code specifically prevents the aggressive marketing of infant formula by corporate representatives who masquerade as health care professionals (so-called ‘milk nurses’) and by the donation of samples to hook children. When the Code came before the World Health Assembly, the vote on it was 93 to 3. Two of the countries that voted against the Code—Bangladesh and Chad—said that they did not oppose the Code itself, but only wanted to extend the debate. The United States—the third country to vote against the Code—actually voted against it.
The U.S. representative to the Assembly in 1981, Gerald B. Helman, said that his government opposed the WHO’s “involvement in commercial codes.” What the U.S. did not want was for the multilateral agencies to get involved in the regulation of business. Echoing Helman, the International Council of Infant Food Industries said that the Code lacked “flexibility.” This means that the infant food corporations felt hemmed in by the regulations.