A proposal to promote breastfeeding was met with unexpected contention by American delegates at the World Health Assembly in May. The United States reportedly used intimidation to get some countries to retract their support for the resolution.
Baby food is a $70 billion industry that is monopolized by only a few American and European companies. As more mothers are turning to breastfeeding, the industry has seen its sales dropping across wealthy countries.
Based on decades of research that finds breast milk substitutes are not as healthy for babies as breast milk, the international plan would limit the deceptive marketing of infant food alternatives.
According to the New York Times, the United States first moved to modify some of the language used in the proposal, particularly a statement which called for policymakers to restrict the promotion of products that could have damaging effects on babies and young children.
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services explained: “The resolution as originally drafted placed unnecessary hurdles for mothers seeking to provide nutrition to their children.”
When the attempt by American delegates to rephrase the resolution was not successful, they resorted to threats.
Ecuador, for example, withdrew its sponsorship for the project after the United States threatened to punish the country with harsh trade measures and retract military aid funding for backing the measure.
The New York Times reported that at least 12 other nations, primarily poor countries in Africa and Latin America, also dissociated from the proposal. Officials from Mexico, Uruguay, and the United States told the news source that these countries withdrew their support for the initiative out of fear of retaliation by the United States.
Patti Rundall is the policy director of the British advocacy group Baby Milk Action.
“We were astonished, appalled and also saddened,” Rundall told the New York Times. “What happened was tantamount to blackmail, with the U.S. holding the world hostage and trying to overturn nearly 40 years of consensus on the best way to protect infant and young child health.”
Ultimately, it was Russia that stepped up to introduce the resolution, and the United States did not directly object.
An anonymous Russian delegate told The Times: “We’re not trying to be a hero here, but we feel that it is wrong when a big country tries to push around some very small countries, especially on an issue that is really important for the rest of the world.”
Oddly, President Donald Trump has denied the the story, tweeting “The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don’t believe women should be denied access to formula.”
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer