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Self-styled public-health activists often pursue issues that are surrogates for their real agenda. One example is the continuing attack on infant formula. Activists' underlying agenda is not the well-being of mothers or babies, but disparaging discrediting and disadvantaging multinational food producers. <?xml:namespace prefix = o ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:office" />
The U.N.'s World Health Organization soon will vote on whether to require prominent warnings that pathogenic microorganisms are present in infant formula. The principal supporters of such labeling—including such scientific and medical powerhouses as Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nepal and Palau—claim using infant formula can lead to malnutrition and respiratory infections and possibly cause death.
When formula is used as directed, this is all sheer nonsense, of course. But this initiative is the opening salvo in an ideological campaign to smear infant formula. If the activists succeed in banning or severely restricting the use of this legitimate and often-useful product, the consequences could be dire.
The allegations about infant formula are a mosaic of misrepresentations and half-truths, the most egregious of which is calculated confusion between feeding formula and bottle feeding. Formula is a safe and effective alternative when breast feeding is impossible or impractical, but most bottle feeding in developing countries employs inferior substitutes, such as sugar or rice water, tea, cow's milk or cassava flour and water. These are insufficiently nutritious and, thus, dangerous to a developing infant.
Most health professionals, as well as the producers of infant formula, agree breast feeding is the preferred way to feed babies. As long ago as 1869, Henry Nestle, founder of the company that bears his name—which is one of the largest manufacturers of infant formula worldwide—said, "During the first few months, the mother's milk will always be the most natural nutriment, and every mother, able to do so, should herself suckle her child."
With respect to risk and benefit, it is difficult to generalize about infant formula, a proven source of nutrition that may be needed under various circumstances.
Women may choose to work outside the home, or may not produce enough milk, for example. In developing countries, the mothers of infants may have succumbed to malaria, tuberculosis, HIV or other diseases. With the spread of HIV rampant in the developing world, it is especially important to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV through breast milk. According to the U.N.'s own statistics, up to 20 percent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers may acquire HIV through breast-feeding.
In recent years, major multinational producers of infant formula have been extremely responsible in their sales and marketing policies. They have adhered to strict World Health Organization guidelines, and have aggressively provided objective information about the benefits of breast feeding and the proper way to provide complementary nutrition.
The current attacks on formula are scientifically unfounded and misguided. Similar to other food products, its manufacturers must assure it is neither adulterated nor misbranded. In plain English, the product may not be harmful or labeled inaccurately. But like the tomatoes, potatoes, yogurt and milk we buy at the supermarket, preparations of formula are "clean" but not sterile. They may contain harmless microorganisms (as does the air we breathe), while by contrast, drugs like injectable vaccines and intravenous fluids are completely sterile.
This is hardly the first instance of Western elites (read: radical NGOs) imposing their values on others in the name of safety and health. Two generations ago, environmental groups persuaded American regulators to ban the use of DDT, by far the best agent known for the control of malaria-causing mosquitoes. That prohibition, which has now been extended to much of the world, has had disastrous consequences for the developing world: a death toll in the scores of millions and huge losses of societal productivity, to say nothing of quality of life.
Another example is activists' attacks on agricultural biotechnology. Their fear-mongering and agitation have elicited unscientific and excessive regulation (and even some outright bans), making it impossible for poor farmers to exploit fully the benefits of high-tech farming. In parts of the world where even in good years the crop surpluses are meager, food security has been needlessly jeopardized.
The campaign against infant formula is much the same: activists imposing their ideologies and biases on others, attempting to arrogate control of the products and lifestyle choices that are available to society at large.
At the meeting of the World Health Assembly (the primary decision-making body for WHO) in <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = "urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags" />Geneva, if national positions are to reflect not only good science but also the milk of human kindness, they will oppose inappropriate strictures and baseless attacks on formula.