The Baby Killers Are Still at Large

August 12, 1994|By JONATHAN POWER

LONDON — London. -- It probably passed most of the world by that last week was World Breast-Feed Week. It almost did me, and why should you be different? Unless you were one of the mothers of 4,000 babies that UNICEF estimates die every day because they're not breast-fed, but bottle-fed with commercial baby food.

Twenty-one years ago, Derek Jellife, an expert on infant nutrition, published an article in a British medical magazine entitled ''Commerciogenic Malnutrition.'' At that time breast-feeding wasn't a proper subject for dinner-table discussion, much less for great campaigns. But Dr. Jellife sparked an issue that caught fire and spread around the world.

It has been a 20-year campaign to try to limit the propaganda of the giant baby-food companies which promote their milk powders in unsophisticated communities, in the face of a mountain of evidence that poorly educated women mixing their powders with contaminated water and using dirty bottles are feeding their children a concoction not far short of poison. Breast is not only best, it is nature's way of providing a germ-free, nutrition-rich, product for even the poorest child. Only a small fraction of mothers can't breast-feed, and only mothers who have the facilities for clean water and sterilization should even contemplate it.

Yet 20 years of campaigning on this simple truth has not slain the commercial dragon.

The first confrontation was in a Swiss courtroom 18 years ago, when a local group was sued for having besmirched the good name of Nestle, the world-wide food giant, with a pamphlet entitled ''The Baby Killer.'' Although Nestle won the case it lost the moral battle. The judge told Nestle to ''rethink fundamentally its advertising practices,'' noting that ad campaigns ''can transform a life-saving product into one that is dangerous and life-destroying.''

UNICEF and the World Health Organization then adopted the cause. They drafted, in consultation with the industry, an international Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, which was approved almost unanimously in 1981 by governments voting in the World Health Assembly.

At the time the baby-food companies publicly approved the code's restrictions on direct advertising, inadequate labels, saleswomen dressed as nurses and free samples. But another story was revealed last week in a report by the Baby Food Action Network:

* Baby-food companies continue to promote their products by donating free supplies of infant formula to hospitals. UNICEF describes this as the ''most detrimental practice in inducing mothers away from breast- feeding.'' Eighty-one governments have now adopted official bans against free supplies. Yet in 41 countries, 28 of which have passed legislation against it, the practice continues. Nestle, the world's largest baby-food company, defies the law in 22 countries including in China, Zimbabwe and Bangladesh.

* Mead Johnson, a large American company, labels its powder with a picture of Peter Rabbit being bottle fed by his mother. The international code clearly states that labels should carry no pictures which idealize bottle feeding. (Someone should tell Mead Johnson that if you feed cow's milk to a rabbit you'd kill it!)

* Nutricia, which owns baby-milk companies in the U.S. and Europe, wins the award for the greatest audacity. While other companies give free supplies on the sly while claiming purity, Nutricia brazenly announces its generosity with a large photo in a Peruvian daily of its local representative with a stack of boxes of baby powder about to be donated to local hospitals.

James Grant, UNICEF's executive director and the recent winner of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America's highest civilian honor, observes, ''Reversing the decline in breast-feeding could save the lives of 1.5 million infants a year.'' Quite a thing to have on one's conscience, if you're a baby-food company, or so I would have thought.

B6 Jonathan Power writes a column on the Third World.

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