Every time a baby goes to breast, the $70 billion baby food industry loses a sale

Every time a baby goes to breast, the $70 billion baby food industry loses a sale


On Sunday, the most shared story in the New York Times was about breastfeeding – specifically, about how the US government threatened multiple countries with trade sanctions and withdrawal of military support if they backed a resolution calling for more support for breastfeeding mothers and their babies.

According to the Times:

American officials sought to water down the resolution by removing language that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding” and another passage that called on policymakers to restrict the promotion of food products that many experts say can have deleterious effects on young children.

Why would the US government stand in the way of global breastfeeding advocacy? There are a number of theories – but my money is on the $70 billion baby food industry – upon whom the US dairy industry relies to convert massive milk surpluses into profitable products. In a face-off between a powerful industry lobby and global maternal and child health, the powerful industry carried the day.

This is the critical take-home message for anyone who cares about the health of moms and babies: When it comes to global infant and young child feeding, industry profits take precedence over public health.

The underlying issue is that we have a massive milk oversupply problem in the US. American milk consumption has plummeted, from 290 pounds per capita in 1950 to just 45 pounds per capita in 2014. Unloading all that milk has been a long-term project for the dairy industry. For example, with support from the Department of Agriculture, the National Dairy Board has worked tirelessly to inject cheese into every element of the American diet, tripling consumption between 1970 and 2007. In 2002, the USDA partnered with Pizza Hut to promote the “Summer of Cheese,” increasing cheese consumption by 102 million pounds.

Despite these efforts (and the associated obesity epidemic), we still have too much milk. In 2016, the Wall Street Journal reported that America’s dairy farmers dumped 43 million gallons of excess milk. When there’s not a market for fresh milk, it’s stored in other forms. Last week, it was reported that US cheese reserves are at their highest in a century, with 1.39 billion pounds in warehouses. As the director of market intelligence at the American Farm Bureau Federation told the Washington Post, “We’re producing more milk. It’s inevitable. That milk needs to get turned into something storable.”

What’s the fastest growing “something storable” in 2018? Baby formula – and in particular, a product called toddler milk. This product has been dubbed “The Hello Kitty of Packaged Food” for its runaway success in Asian markets. According to the European Food Safety Authority, these products offer no additional value to a balanced diet, and many are sweetened with sugar or corn syrup, potentially contributing to the global obesity epidemic. Toddler milk sales are expected to grow by 20% in developed countries from 2015 to 2020; in 2014, these milks comprised 39% of the baby milk retail market worldwide.

The World Health Assembly has identified marketing of toddler milks as potentially detrimental to child health, and has called for restrictions on inappropriate promotion. To address these issues, the WHO convened NetCode, the Network for Global Monitoring and Support for Implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and Subsequent relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions. All but one reference to the WHO Code was stripped from the WHA resolution that ultimately passed in May. Protecting toddler milk as a dumping ground for excess milk was likely a primary motivation for the US take-no-prisoners attack on global breastfeeding.

The formula industry has long recognized that rising breastfeeding rates are a threat their financial bottom line. In his Q1 2016 earnings call with shareholders, Mead Johnson CEO Peter Kasper Jakobsen said:

The start to the year in our U.S. business was affected by market share losses from the highs we saw in the middle of 2015. On a positive note, we believe the strengthening labor market and workforce participation rates have caused a rise in breastfeeding rates to level off over the last four months or so. [italics added]

For the dairy and infant formula industries, it’s all about market share. Every time a baby goes to breast, the $70 billion baby food industry loses a sale.

The United States’ opposition to the WHA breastfeeding resolution is appalling. And it is also in line with decades of US policies that have prioritized corporate profit over public health. At least it’s clear, in this moment, exactly what we are up against.

Alison Stuebe, MD, MSc, is a maternal-fetal medicine physician and president-elect of the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine. You can follow her on Twitter at @astuebe. This blog post is adapted from a presentation at the Breatfeeding Advocacy Collective meeting in Toronto, Canada, May 9, 2018.

Posts on this blog reflect the opinions of individual ABM members, not the organization as a whole.



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