Companies aggressively marketed infant formula. Then there was a shortage

The shortage has been compounded by the country’s low breastfeeding rate compared to most industrialized countries, health researchers say, which has made the United States particularly vulnerable to shocks in the highly concentrated infant formula market. infants.

Much of the problem, these experts say, lies in the aggressive marketing and promotional practices of infant formula manufacturers, which undermine new mothers’ breastfeeding practices and influence their decisions to use infant formula. The United States takes a lax approach to formula marketing, unlike many other countries.

Formula manufacturers distribute free formula to hospitals, encourage doctors and health care workers to give free samples to mothers, and use social media influencers to advertise the benefits of formula to expectant or new mothers — strategies that undermine efforts to support breastfeeding, according to health experts.
“The commercialization of infant formula – fueled by huge budgets and a deliberate misuse of science – leads to overconsumption of infant formula and discourages breastfeeding,” the World Health Organization and the UN Fund have found. for children in a February report. report.

The infant formula industry “systematically undermines parents’ infant feeding decisions,” the report said, comparing the efforts to the marketing of tobacco or gambling.

Certainly, formula is a vital option for parents who can’t breastfeed or can’t take time off work to do so. But there are concerns that the industry is marketing it to people who don’t need it.

Infant formula manufacturers, however, say they offer a safe and nutritious option for babies who cannot or do not receive breast milk.

“Mothers should be encouraged and supported to breastfeed,” said a spokesperson for the Infant Nutrition Council of America, a trade group representing formula manufacturers. “However, if breastmilk is not available or not chosen, parents should have access to accurate and balanced information about all appropriate infant feeding options.”

The formula book

The aggressive strategies of infant formula manufacturers play a key role in pushing mothers to use infant formula.

“Marketing influences social norms by making the use of infant formula appear to be extensive, modern, and comparable or better than breast milk,” according to the findings of a study published in 2015 in the journal Food and Nutrition Bulletin. “Clear evidence of a negative impact is found when [formula is] offered free of charge in maternities and when promoted by health workers and in the media.
Unlike many other countries, the United States does not regulate most infant formula industry business practices. It has not signed the World Health Organization’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes established in 1981 which prohibits the marketing of infant formula to the public. The Code was developed because of the negative correlation between the marketing of infant formula and breastfeeding rates.

“The failure of the United States to regulate the marketing practices of the $55 billion formula industry means that families in our country are not supported and protected from exploitative messages at vulnerable times in their lives. life,” said Amelia Psmythe Seger, deputy director of the U.S. Committee on Breastfeeding.

The committee has called for stricter regulations, improving a national network of non-profit donor milk banks and policies such as national paid family leave to improve the nutritional security of infants.

A spokesperson for the Infant Nutrition Council of America, the group representing infant formula manufacturers, said its member companies support and promote the “aims and principles” of the WHO Code. Formula makers “have extensive internal approval and audit processes in place” to ensure their practices meet all legal, regulatory and nutritional requirements.

In the past, infant formula manufacturers have focused on getting products to new mothers while they’re still in the hospital, the crucial breastfeeding window that determines mothers’ success once they return. at home.

“The keystone of their marketing strategy is getting free samples into the hands of nursing mothers,” said Melissa Bartick, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “What they’re hoping is that if a nursing mom is having trouble, she’ll already have formula in a bottle and be ready to put in her baby’s mouth.”

It’s a “vicious circle”, she says, because the more often mothers breastfeed, the more milk they produce. “If a mother starts using formula, her body will produce less milk…Before you know it, her milk production will stop and she will become dependent on formula.”

More recently, digital marketing aimed directly at pregnant women online is also driving their decisions to use infant formula, according to an April WHO report.

Formula manufacturers use tools such as apps, online support groups or “baby clubs”, paid social media influencers and promotions to cast doubt on the benefits of breastfeeding and the benefits of infant formula, according to the report.

“It’s very difficult to be a breastfeeding mother in the United States”

The tactics are part of a larger environment in the United States in which breastfeeding has become a struggle for new mothers.

Although 84% of babies in the United States start breastfeeding, only a quarter of infants are exclusively breastfed at six months, according to the latest Data from the Centers for Disease Control. Black infants have lower breastfeeding rate than white infants.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommended exclusive breastfeeding of infants for the first six months of life.
“There is no need to introduce infant formula or other sources of nutrition for most infants,” the organization said in a statement. policy statement this week calling for more support for nursing mothers
Breastfeeding has been linked to a range of short- and long-term health benefits in infants, including lower rates of lower respiratory tract infections, severe diarrhea and other conditions. It also has benefits for mothers, including a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancer and type 2 diabetes.
Families can't use WIC benefits to buy formula online, compounding shortage issues

Savvy marketing, of course, isn’t the only reason mothers turn to formula.

Health experts say the lack of strong policies in the United States to support breastfeeding mothers contributes to this decline in breastfeeding rates after babies are born and to disparities in breastfeeding rates along racial and economic lines.

Most babies in America are not born in hospitals that are “Baby friendly“, the global standard set to support breastfeeding. Baby-friendly hospitals use strategies to promote breastfeeding, such as uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact immediately after birth, and they do not allow infant formula , except for medical reasons.

Once mothers leave the hospital, it often becomes difficult to breastfeed, especially for low-income mothers. Participants in the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) account for more than half of the infant formula used in the United States.

The United States does not have a national paid maternity or family leave. Many workplaces have inadequate pumping stations or none at all, and breastfeeding in public is often stigmatized.

“Being a breastfeeding mother in the United States is very difficult,” Bartick said.