“I thought it would be better for his growth to have milk powder,” Zhang said, cradling her gently cooing son outside the headquarters of China’s Sanlu Group, now at the centre of a scandal about toxic milk powder.
“I’ll never feed it to him again,” she added, waiting her turn to return the powder, which has already made more than 6,000 Chinese babies sick and killed three after it was contaminated with melamine, a compound often used to measure protein.
Yet some companies make wild claims about their milk.
“For quite a while now infant formula companies have been making claims that we believe are not supportable by science. Quite often in East Asia the most appealing claims are they put ingredients in the milk that make the children smarter,” said Dale Rutstein, UNICEF’s China communications chief.
Wu Bixian, another Shijiazhuang mother, said she stopped breastfeeding when her son was four months old.
“It was to boost his nutrition,” Wu said when asked why she had switched to milk powder. “I felt I couldn’t give him enough nutrition myself and formula would be better than breast milk.”
13 000 babies are now in hospital from melamine-contamined infant formula. And that number is rising. At least four babies have died. This is a human crisis of enormous proportions.
Melamine, a poison that damages the kidneys, is used to boost the appearance of protein in the formula. And that poisoned formula is pushed onto families with persuasive claims of it being superior nutrition, “scientifically” formulated, the new and better way to feed babies.
Every call for controls on formula advertising is met with vigorous and sustained legal opposition by the giant formula conglomerates, despite the WHO Code being in place almost everywhere in the world for years now.
Even where production regulation is tight, contaminated baby formula is out there on the market. Formula contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii is a recurrent problem for premature and newborn babies all over the world, yet formula companies still refuse to get on board with WHO recommendations that only ready-to-feed formula should be given to newborns where mother’s milk or donor milk is not available.
The solution is very much a multi-headed one. Tighter regulation of infant formula safety is, of course, essential. But it’s not the whole answer, not in the longer term. Human milk banks need to be routinely available and publicly funded, not oddities for unusual situations. And society, every society, needs to be rearranged such that breastfeeding and relactating mothers are truly supported to do so, financially, socially, and practically.
The deep-rooted perception that women’s bodies and milk are all inherently defective, substandard, not good enough: this needs to change. And for that, we need feminism.
There are a lot of baby steps along this path. If you’d like to support the global effort to improve children’s health and support families, please donate to UNICEF. They’re one of the few aid agencies that considers breastfeeding support to be an integral part of both disaster assistance and everyday health promotion.