Milk Formula and Corporate Interest

Breast is best. Yet why have so many mothers embraced the concept of infant milk formula products? This article exposes the motivation behind the marketing strategies that helped to change the practice of breast-feeding, and outlines the reasons why the trend is swinging back to the natural, scientifically proven, best method of infant feeding – the breast.

The last few decades have seen a gradual return to breast-feeding after a strong move away from this traditionally tried and tested method of rearing our young. So just how and why did people move away from breast-feeding and towards breast milk substitutes? Some historical insight is useful to place this issue into perspective.

The early twentieth century saw a profound change of public perceptions regarding science and the social acceptance of a deterministic, Cartesian perspective of our world, allied to a sharp shift towards a materialistic consumer society. This has resulted in a movement away from traditional values toward accepting the implications that scientific reductionism is superior and therefore trumps both common sense and traditional knowledge systems.

This was spurred by scientific progress as manifested in things like electricity networks, telephones, radios, and mass-production methods, all dominated by an omnipresent, technocentric media presence. This, allied with a marked shift away from holistic perceptions of humans and their place in the world, has led people to perceive themselves to be part of an almost artificial, mechanistic world. Few issues were, and continue to be, more indicative of this shift than the move away from the important natural mother-child bond toward the supposed ‘convenience’ of bottle-feeding infants with corporate-devised formulas. Only in the closing years of the twentieth century was there any tendency to return towards a more holistic perception of ourselves and our relationship to the natural world. In the intervening years, the products of industry were increasingly geared to fulfil the perception that we needed human scientific advances in order to keep our bodies healthy; notable among these were the pharmaceutical and food industries that evolved from small, disparate companies into massive conglomerates by the end of the twentieth century.


Nestlé is now the world’s biggest food corporation. Nestlé played a crucial role in weaning humans off breast milk and initiating a shift toward a replacement industrial product that could and did generate immense profit.

Nestlé was founded upon its thrust into what is today known as the breast milk replacement market. In Switzerland in the 1860s, Heinrich Nestlé launched what is now a multinational food conglomerate, selling his newly developed baby feeding formula. Nestlé almost immediately moved into marketing its products internationally. Their aggressive marketing methods aimed to persuade mothers that this modern innovation was superior to the natural product evolved for the young of all mammals. By the middle of the twentieth century, breast-feeding had plummeted from being the primary choice of mothers globally. Beside the health impacts, the emotional costs remain incalculable.

In 1939 a paediatrician, Dr Cicely Williams, who later became the head of the World Health Organization’s maternal and child health services, said in a talk to the Singapore rotary Club: “If you are legal purists, you may wish me to change the title of this address to ‘Milk and Manslaughter’. But if your lives were as embittered as mine is by seeing day after day this massacre of the innocents by unsuitable feeding, then I believe you would feel as I do that misguided propaganda on infant feeding should be punished as the most miserable form of sedition, and that these deaths should be regarded as murder…’


Over time, statistics were compiled which clearly demonstrated that children fed breast milk replacement formula were far more prone to health problems and premature death than those who were breast-fed. It is estimated by the Baby Milk Action group that over 4 000 infants a day still die because of unsafe bottle feeding.1 If 9/11 was political terrorism, is this not then akin to corporate terrorism? Even in developed nations like the UK, gastrointestinal problems affect formula-fed children at five times the rate of breast-fed children, leading to significant health costs. In poorer nations the rate is significantly higher because of poor sanitation and water quality, coupled with poverty. While it has now been scientifically proven that there is no real replacement for breast milk for growing infants and children into healthy people, it has been a one-way street in manipulating public opinion by the breast milk replacement industry that now includes companies like Gerber/Novartis, Abbott, Cow & Gate, Heinz and Bristol Myers Squibb. Many of these companies have strong ties to the pharmaceutical industry, which provides supposed cures for sick children. Is it therefore cynical to believe that they may have an interest in our ill health?

In order to address this problem, an international network was formed in the 1970s to deal with the health impacts of milk formula on millions of children in both the developing and developed world. A boycott was called on Nestlé and international attention was galvanised by the network called IBFAN, the International Baby Food Action Network. This group drafted a code, the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Association, the annual assembly of the UN World Health Organisation, in 1981. This was the first such attempt to regulate an entire sector of industry at international level.

Since then, 24 nations have implemented most of the code through creating laws or regulations to manage the marketing of infant feeding formulas. This remains a pitifully small number and corporate influence over national regulation remains deeply problematic. It is interesting to note here that of the 100 biggest economies in the world, 49 are nations; 51 are corporations. Corporations, accordingly, wield massive influence and power. They have the means and the will to inordinately influence both public opinion and national legislative agendas.

Despite the IBFAN code being part of international law, it remains either flouted or at best partially complied with by corporations, according to the IBFAN report of 2011. No single infant milk producer fulfils all the criteria of the code and some, including Nestlé, continue to avoid complete compliance in all categories.2

There remains a clear need to control corporate non-compliance with internationally agreed regulation by large conglomerates. Lessons from the breast milk substitute food-fight are instructive and salutary. While complete enforcement of the code has not yet been achieved, the campaign to regulate this matter of unacceptable corporate behaviour has many lessons for other aspects of corporate misbehaviour and non-disclosure, particularly around food labelling and safety related to the pharmaceutical and genetic-engineering industries. There are some tools to regulate corporations, but national and public oversight and intervention is required at all levels to implement regulatory instruments.

Hopefully the trend to return to breast- feeding as the first choice for at least the first 6 months of life will continue. South Africa’s Minister of Health, Aaron Motsoaledi, who is a registered medical doctor, has fought hard for this to be emphasised and has personally banished baby milk companies’ material from clinics. It also falls upon each of us to ensure that the socially unacceptable behaviour of pushing undesirable products to the mis- and uninformed is halted.




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Milk Formula and Corporate Interest

Glenn Ashton
About The Author
- He is a writer and researcher focused on health, food and nutritional safety and security as well as environmental issues. He has written extensively on the topic of genetically modified foods and is considered an authority on the subject. He contributed a chapter to and edited "A Patented World? The Privatisation of Life and Nature," published by Jacana. View his website for more of his writing on this and many other subjects.