US puts business ahead of children’s health

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Delegates at the United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly met in Geneva and were about to issue a simple statement that called on governments to “protect, promote and support breastfeeding” and to restrict promotion of toxic infant and toddler food products.

This seemed like an issue that really needed no discussion until Trump and the 70 billion dollar annual interests of infant formula manufacturers entered the fray. To protect big business, the Trump administration threatens sanctions against pro-breastfeeding, anti-toxic food governments similar to those used against hostile countries developing nuclear weapons.

{mosads}Initially, small third world nations dependent upon U.S. support backed down. Fortunately, the proposal ultimately passed after endorsement by Russia.


The U.S. efforts to curb promotion of breastfeeding are especially surprising since the United States has consistently recognized the potential benefits of breastfeeding and been increasingly supportive of women who choose to do so. All fifty states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands have passed legislation that allows breastfeeding in any public or private location

In the Healthy People 2020 initiative, the national goal is to have 81.9 percent of new mothers breastfeeding by the year 2020.

Yet, the U.S. suddenly shifted gears threatened sanctions of other countries for endorsing statements that encourage breastfeeding, with special bullying of countries where poverty and work demands on women limit their opportunities to breastfeed and force them to utilize more costly processed formulas.

Why encourage breastfeeding here but not there? Perhaps the current administration is unaware of these benefits, especially in third world countries, or has not been paying attention to some recent studies looking at toxins in infant and toddler foods. Even more frightening, perhaps, is the infant formula industry became more valuable to Trump than the children it supposedly serves.

In high income countries the infant mortality rates are generally below 1 percent and breastfeeding reduces the risk of infant deaths attributable to relatively rare diseases such as Sudden Infant Death Syndrome about 35 percent.

In contrast, in low to middle income countries, infant mortality rates are typically 5 to 10 percent and breastfeeding reduces mortality by 65-75 percent in the first 6 months and 50 percent between ages 6 months and two years. Multiple studies have reported that breastfeeding in third world nations reduces infant hospitalization for diarrhea and respiratory illness (the major causes of infant death) by over 70 percent and 50 percent respectively.

Breastfeeding-related health benefits include decreased risks of obesity, type 1 diabetes, celiac disease, breast cancer and improved cognitive function (including IQ) even adjusted for family medical and socioeconomic history. Substitutions for breastfeeding may actually make things worse.

The Clean Label Project evaluated 500 infant formulas and baby foods. Over 80 percent of them contained arsenic, cadmium, bisphenols or other toxins.

The long-term effects of exposures to these chemicals at these levels are not clear, but they are certainly not good for our children. Catering to the food industry is just not an excuse for bullying the world to diminish its support for good health practices.

Breastfeeding advocates will say that this piece inadequately enumerates the benefits of breastfeeding. Others will say that insufficient attention was given to benefits for some of not breastfeeding or the fact that not doing so doesn’t make one a bad parent. Both are correct.

The concern here, however, is an administration promoting industry at the expense of children and ignoring the potentially “huge” financial and health benefits of legislating to create better options to breastfeed, especially in third world nations.

The administration’s depreciation of children relative to corporations and preference for industry over infancy is not new. In 2017 Trump proposed a 2018 budget that severely cut funding for school lunches and along with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue would eliminate the demonstrably effective improved meals in the Health, Hunger-Free Kids, Act in favor of mass produced Mac’n’Cheese meals. We are now witnessing a repeat performance extending domestic policies devaluing children relative to the industrial machine but on an international stage with babies as victims.

As the physician and polymath Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. said, “A pair of substantial mammary glands has the advantage over the two hemispheres of the most learned professor’s brain, in the art of compounding a nutritious fluid for infants.”

We aren’t the country that treats promotion of good health practices by foreign governments as aggressive economic assaults demanding retaliation. It is a shame that we had to take a lesson in common sense and humanity from Russia to curb our devaluation of the lives of children. We should have known better.

Dr. Michael Rosenbaum is a professor of Pediatrics and Medicine at Columbia University Medical Center and a practicing pediatrician in New York. He has spent over 30 years studying obesity and nutrition in adults and children. 

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