U.S. derailed global breast-feeding resolution to appease baby-formula industry

A woman breastfeeds her son outside City Hall during a rally to support public breast-feeding in New York City in 2014.
A woman breastfeeds her son outside City Hall during a rally to support public breast-feeding in New York City in 2014.
Photo: Andrew Burton (Getty Images)

The U.S. withdrawal from the United Nations’ Human Rights Council last month was front-page news across the globe. Around the same time, America was rocking the boat on another global front: breast-feeding. The New York Times reports that at a spring meeting of the U.N.-linked World Health Assembly, a resolution designed to promote breast-feeding around the world and to limit the false and misleading claims of infant formula manufacturers was expected to pass without a speed bump. Then the American delegation got involved.

According to the Times—citing diplomats and officials who were at the meeting in Geneva—the Americans “upended” the discussions in order to promote the interests of formula companies. The resolution, which was expected to pass easily, stated that based on decades of research, mothers’ breast milk is the healthiest choice for infants, and called on governments to “protect, promote and support breast-feeding.” It also sought to limit the inaccurate marketing claims of infant formula-makers.

The American representatives sought to water down the pro-breast-feeding language in the resolution to protect the interests of formula-making companies, the Times reports. When that failed, the American delegation began threatening other countries in order to get their way. Ecuador, which had introduced the resolution, became the target of threats to “unleash punishing trade measures and withdraw crucial military aid.” (So, essentially, extortion.) Ecuador quickly backed down, and when advocates tried to find another country to sponsor the resolution, most poor nations begged off, citing fears they would lose U.S. aid.


This whole saga may sound policy-wonkish, but it’s actually a pretty simple equation: The U.S. delegation ignored decades of scientific research that finds breast milk to have myriad health benefits for infants in favor of letting formula manufacturers make more money. This isn’t a debate over the morality of breast-feeding—whether or not to breast-feed is a personal choice—but about the American government’s troubling habit of ignoring science, the global order, diplomatic norms, and the health of its citizens in favor of maximizing corporate profits. Break out the party hats: We now live in a country whose health delegates argued against restricting inaccuracies and false claims on infant formula. I can feel America’s greatness.

Kate Bernot is a freelance writer and a certified beer judge. She was previously managing editor at The Takeout.

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I know I should feel bad about this, but having just gone through the ringer over breastfeeding with a judgmental, manipulative jerk of a lactation consultant with my wife, I do think there’s something to be said for making sure any sort of global initiative to support breastfeeding focuses on “evidenced-based” support and advice.

There’s a lot of lactation hokum out there, and I suspect for some families that struggle tremendously with issues around breastfeeding, the reduction in stress levels and load balancing accomplished by using formula that allows you to do a better job of helping your kid grow in other ways because you’re family is not tearing it’s hair out trying to make breastfeeding work when it’s become super tenuous, may offset the health benefits.