“Even in the harshest of trade regimes, there is space for public interest laws to meet legitimate health objectives when they are founded on internationally adopted standards and recommendations such as the Code and subsequent relevant WHA resolutions.”– WHO, 2016
All three of my kids sport a similar look when they lie. As soon as the fabrication tumbles out, their cheeks suck in ever so slightly toward pursed lips. Once they’ve heard themselves, their eyes widen a smidge and their bottom jaw drops just a few degrees.
Most of us don’t like to be lied to, but usually the dishonesty we encounter can be considered trivial. “I didn’t do it!” when there’s crayon art on the kitchen walls. “Your hair looks great!” when you know it doesn’t. “Of course I remember you!” when you haven’t the slightest clue.
Just as humans tend to react physiologically when we lie, we have an ability to detect when someone is lying to us. Inundated by the lies told by marketing companies on behalf of major industries though, detecting truth and falsehoods can be majorly challenging. There’s no lip biting, no shifting eyes, no perspiring to give it away. Instead the tactics industries use are cunning, targeted, sometimes irresistible and truly brilliant in many ways. The lies they tell are perpetual, and their claims have completely saturated our culture, influencing just about every facet of our lives, all for commercial gain.
There’s a promotional video featured by a cooking show that showcases a chef professing his allegiance to gas stoves. The video was created by a utilities provider though, and having worked aggressively with state legislatures “to block legislation that would provide cleaner, electric-based building codes,” their marketing got us to believe that cooking on a gas stove is somehow the best while simultaneously waging “war on local electrification initiatives all over the country.” [https://www.thresholdpodcast.org/season-4-episode-6-transcript]
Here’s another example. Most of the seafood that we purchase and consume in the U.S. is mislabeled as something completely different. This “Seafood Fraud” is detailed in (Mis)labeled Fish.
Fossil fuel companies are greenwashing their efforts, helping to sow doubt about the fossil fuel industry’s role in the climate crisis.
As explained on How to Save a Planet: “They’ve… done it indirectly, by funding organizations who lobby congress, launching fake grassroots campaigns, and perhaps most importantly, through advertising. These ads, according to Martin Watters at the nonprofit firm ClientEarth, are greenwashing.”
Now consider the baby milk substitute (BMS) industry. A recent WHO report examines the scope, techniques and impact of digital marketing strategies for the promotion of breast-milk substitutes which reveals how the $ 55 billion baby formula industry “insidiously and persistently” targets parents online through “tools like apps, virtual support groups or ‘baby-clubs’, paid social media influencers, promotions and competitions and advice forums or services, formula milk companies can buy or collect personal information and send personalized promotions to new pregnant women and mothers.” [https://www.who.int/news/item/28-04-2022-who-reveals-shocking-extent-of-exploitative-formula-milk-marketing]
Their efforts have further adapted to target older children with their toddler milks and formulas. Lurie again calls out false claims like “Brain & eye development” and “Plant-based protein for toddlers.”
He writes: “The multibillion-dollar infant-formula industry is trying to convince parents that children older than 12 months need formula. They don’t. The beverages—made largely of fortified powdered soy or dairy milk, oil, and corn syrup solids or maltodextrin—typically supply added sugars. They certainly don’t beat a diet of healthy foods.”
The WHO report confirms these concerns: “Science is a dominant theme in the marketing of formula milk across all eight countries, including scientific imagery, language and pseudo-scientific claims. Formula milks are positioned as close to, equivalent and sometimes superior to breast milk, presenting incomplete scientific evidence and inferring unsupported health outcomes. Ingredients, such as human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), are advertised as ‘informed’ or ‘derived’ from breast milk and linked to child developmental outcomes. Examination of the scientific evidence cited does not support the validity of these claims.” (p. 9)
In response to the absurdity of BMS industry claims during Protecting Breastfeeding in the United States: Time for Action on The Code, David Clark, International Public Health and Human Rights Lawyer and Legal Advisor for the UNICEF Nutrition Programme (1995 to 2020), laughed “I don’t think I’ve seen anything so outrageous in my life.”
The marketing of formula products is different from other commodities because it impacts the survival, health and development of children and mothers; disrupts truthful information– an essential human right as noted by the Convention on the Rights of the Child; disregards the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes; and exploits the aspirations, vulnerabilities and fears at the birth and early years of our children solely for commercial gain. (WHO/UNICEF, 2022, p. x)
Considering the current state of affairs– the industry’s guileful tactics, the permeation of their influence in every sphere of life, our nation’s lack of adoption of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes/ subsequent WHA resolutions and any monitoring or enforcement systems– it’s easy to feel crushed as a maternal child health advocate, like the way forward is straight into the Apocalypse.
Fear not. Researcher Britt Wray has suggestions on how to keep ourselves within our windows of tolerance in order to continue to mobilize. While Wray’s work focuses on the climate crisis, her findings are easily applied to maternal child health advocacy. Learn about these techniques here.
There are also simple actions (and some bigger ones too) that we can employ to continue to move the needle.
Françoise Coudray of ADJ+ Allaitement Des Jumeaux et Plus offered this to health advocates attending the launch of WHO’s latest report : “The mosquito: small, small, but have one in your bedroom and you will have a very bad night; so do the mosquito, let us all do the mosquito.”
When marketed formula products on social media platforms, report them directly to the platform.
- Make a presence at the Codex Committee on Contaminants in Foods Public Meetings. In April, individuals like Consumer Reports Senior Staff Scientist Mike Hansen, Ph.D, Environmental Defense Fund’s chemicals policy director Tom Neltner and Center for Science in the Public Interest’s Thomas Galligan, PhD made clear in brief comments that we need to rethink how toxin levels are approached at CCCF. Hansen pointed out that the current permitted levels are not sufficient to protect infants and young children. Echo these demands for safer products. [While we wait for more stringent requirements, consumers can check out the Clean Label Project to find information about food and products not available on their labels.]
- Join forces with other advocacy groups to put pressure on the enforcement agencies responsible for food safety.
- Check out this Indonesian model of a platform for reporting violations of the Code.
- Support relactation efforts. Artificial feeding does not have to be the default. Ines Fernandez in the Philippines has a model for this work. There is also information about this included in the Global Breastfeeding Collective’s recordings of Building Better Breastfeeding Counselling Programs.
- Get people fired up. Increase public interest participation using NACCHO’s flyer on advocacy and lobbying to drum up attention about how the Code benefits all babies, no matter their feeding method. This has been grossly overlooked and cannot be overstated as formula companies often attempt to pit breastfeeding advocates against those who do not breastfeed.
- Support the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI). In the U.S., this is the only “federal” program that is enforcing the Code, albeit voluntary participation.
- Encourage divestment. Check out Norwegian Secretary-General of Save the Children Tove Wang’s push for the Norwegian Government Petroleum Fund’s withdrawal from investments in companies aggressively pushing infant formula in developing countries. According to Save the Children’s Don’t Push It, “The largest global fund management firms have more than $110 billion invested in companies that market milk formula. As we have documented in this report, the profits these companies generate are fuelled in part by marketing practices that directly – and profoundly – harm children….Active investment funds have the power to wield huge influence over the boards of the companies they have a stake in.” (p44-45)
- Support the work of Baby Milk Action. Patti Rundall, Mike Brady and colleagues work tirelessly to uphold the Code and its resolutions including speaking at shareholder meetings.
- Stay tuned for an engaging opportunity with the newly formed INFACT USA to uphold the Code here in the U.S.
Many of these immediate and long term actions are outlined in Constance Ching and colleague’s piece Old Tricks, New Opportunities: How Companies Violate the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes and Undermine Maternal and Child Health during the COVID-19 Pandemic.