The Infant Feeding Action Coalition USA, Inc. (IN.FACT.USA) has put together a piece detailing the global recall of contaminated Abbott powdered formulas.
In February 2022, the largest U.S. infant formula manufacturer recalled three brands of its powdered formula and one breastmilk fortifier and shut down its main manufacturing facility in Sturgis, Michigan following reports of Cronobacter infections in infants who had consumed formula manufactured at the Sturgis plant. It’s noteworthy that the initial recalls were voluntary–not required by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA)— and they only came after nine babies died between September 2021 and January 2022 from infections.
Let’s focus on that, the death of these babies, Tameka L. Jackson-Dyer, BASc, IBCLC, CHW urges in her Great Lakes Breastfeeding webinar Feed the Baby: Lactation, Contamination, and the American Formula Crisis.
One infant death is one too many. Initially, two deaths were reported; however, Freedom of Information requests and whistleblower action revealed that not only two, but another seven infants in the U.S. were reported to have died after consuming powdered infant formula manufactured at the Abbott factory.
“During the same period, 25 severe infections categorized as ‘Life Threatening Illness/Injury’ and 80 instances of ‘Non-Life Threatening Illness/Injury’ were reported among infants who were fed these formulas,” The Abbott Powdered Formula Scandal also points out.
“Until Cronobacter infections require mandatory notification, the number of cases of illness or deaths will never be known. Neither will their extent in the 37 countries which imported the potentially contaminated Abbott formula.”
In The Four Pillars of Infant Nutrition Security in the United States, author Amelia Psmythe Seger points out that “The U.S. has not regulated the marketing practices of the commercial milk formula industry, unlike 70% of the world, which has implemented at least some part of the WHO’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. In the absence of regulation, these marketing practices are predatory.”
Psmythe Seger goes on to urge, “Diversify the nation’s production of infant formula. Plainly it is a mistake to allow 42% of the infant formula in this country to be produced not only by one company but by one factory of that company. Infant formula companies are part of an infant food security system, but we don’t have to be so dependent on that industry.”
[For more on commercial influence, you can watch USBC’s series of Unpacking Commercial Milk Formula Marketing Webinar Recordings]
A history of breastmilk substitutes laid out by Jackson-Dyer reminds us that before the advent of commercial infant formulas, wet nursing was the original supplemental feeding.
Considering the infant feeding landscape today, Jackson-Dyer quotes Michigan Breastfeeding Network Executive Director Shannon McKenney Shubert, MPH, CLC: “In my 12-year career in the field of human milk feeding, I have never once met a birthing parent who ‘chose not to breastfeed.’ In this country, whether to breastfeed is not a choice. In this country, whether to breastfeed is a question of ‘Within all the systems of oppression that I navigate, what is the best combination of things I can do to ensure the survival of my baby, myself and the rest of my family?’”
With this context in mind, Jackson-Dyer confronts the idea that yes, babies must be fed, but fed is not best; instead, it is required, she says in her webinar.
“It is the absolute minimum to sustain life,” she reminds us. “We can’t just feed the baby anything.”
Again in The Four Pillars of Infant Nutrition Security in the United States, Psmythe Seger shines light on nonprofit donor milk banks which provide pasteurized donor human milk for human babies, “the next best thing to mom.”
“Enhance the national network of nonprofit donor milk banks,” Psmythe Seger writes. “Support innovative partnerships across existing structures, taking a cue from a national model such as what exists in Brazil. Consider: Red Cross has the infrastructure to support donor screening; WIC offices or community health clinics could be donor drop-off sites; more hospitals could provide space and equipment for donor milk processing and distribution, as some have done. Models exist to create an affordable and plentiful alternative to commercial milk formula when a parent’s own milk is not available.”
This fall, the Access to Donor Milk Act (ADMA) was introduced in the House. ADMA would increase federal support for nonprofit milk banks and access to donor milk for medically-vulnerable infants.
What’s more, the legislation would allow state agencies to use WIC funding to promote the need for donor milk, provide emergency capacity funding when there is a demand for donor milk, create a donor milk awareness program, and require the secretary of HHS through the FDA to issue a rule clarifying the regulatory status of donor milk provided by nonprofit milk banks.
Stay tuned for how you can help support this legislation. For other legislative and policies opportunities that support healthy infant feeding, visit USBC’s Take Action page here.