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Mom feeds her child baby milk powder in a baby bottle

Scientific journal The Lancet recently published a series of three new studies highlighting the strategies baby formula manufacturers use to sell cow’s milk-based formula to parents.

In its executive summary, The Lancet editors describe these tactics as underhanded and “designed to prey on parents’ fears and concerns, to turn the feeding of infants and young children into a multibillion-dollar business…”

Meanwhile, baby formula manufacturers like Abbott and Mead Johnson are facing a growing number of baby formula lawsuits filed by plaintiffs whose premature infants were fed cow’s milk-based formulas and then developed necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC), a dangerous and sometimes deadly intestinal infection.

Commercial Formula Manufacturers Make Unsubstantiated Claims

The three-paper series outlines the “multifaceted and highly effective strategies used by commercial formula manufacturers to target parents, health-care professionals, and policy-makers,” according to the journal.

In the series editorial, the authors describe how baby formula manufacturers “claim their products can alleviate discomfort or improve night-time sleep, and also infer that formula can enhance brain development and improve intelligence—all of which are unsubstantiated.”

Breastfeeding, the authors argue, “has proven health benefits across high-income and low-income settings alike.” These include reducing childhood infectious diseases, mortality, and malnutrition, while mothers who breastfeed have reduced risks of breast and ovarian cancers, type 2 diabetes, and cardiovascular disease.

Yet less than 50 percent of babies worldwide are breastfed according to recommendations from the World Health Organization (WHO). The commercial baby formula industry, meanwhile, generates revenues of about $55 billion annually.

The industry’s “dubious” marketing practices, the authors continue, are “compounded by lobbying, often covertly via trade associations and front groups, against strengthening breastfeeding protection laws and challenging food standard regulations.”

Studies Show How Commercial Milk Formula Industry Influences Policy

In the first study, entitled “Breastfeeding: crucially important, but increasingly challenged in a market-driven world,” scientists argue that the commercial milk formula industry “exploits concerns of parents” about unsettled baby behaviors with “unfounded product claims and advertising messages.”

In the second study, entitled “Marketing of commercial milk formula: a system to capture parents, communities, science, and policy,” scientists report that despite the proven benefits of breastfeeding, more infants and young children are receiving formula products than ever before.

Using national survey data, company reports, case studies, methodical scoping reviews, and two multicountry research studies, the researchers report how sales of commercial formula are driven by multifaceted, well-resourced marketing strategies that portray these products—with little or no supporting evidence—as solutions to common infant health and developmental challenges.

In the third and last study of the series, entitled, “The political economy of infant and young child feeding: confronting corporate power, overcoming structural barriers, and accelerating progress,” scientists examine the social, political, and economic reasons why more children aren’t breastfed.

It shows how:

  • the commercial milk formula industry influences public policy at both the national and international levels
  • how breastfeeding is undermined by economic policies and systems that ignore the value of care work by women, and by the inadequacy of maternity rights protection
  • why health systems often do not provide adequate breastfeeding protection, promotion, and support

The study outlines six sets of social, political, and economic reforms required to “overcome these deeply embedded commercial and structural barriers to breastfeeding.”

Baby Formula NEC Lawsuits Moving Toward Trial

In April 2022, the U.S. Judicial Panel on Multidistrict Litigation (JPML) consolidated all federally filed baby formula NEC lawsuits into the Northern District of Illinois. In November 2022, the parties selected a group of 12 cases to be prepared for early trial.

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