In much of this blog so far, we have discussed instances of Western countries wanting and stealing access to food products from what we today consider less developed countries. In this post, we will discuss an example of a Western company introducing a food product for profit, rather than taking it out.
We will begin by briefly discussing breastfeeding expectations and controversy in Western developed countries. Studies firmly suggest that practices such as exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months after birth significantly improve babies’ health and survival rate. However, with the increasing isolation of the nuclear family and the mounting pressures of women to work while caring for children, Western women can find it extremely difficult to live up to expectations of breastfeeding. Women who cannot give milk cannot easily turn to female community members, such as sisters, sisters-in-law, cousins, or friends, for supplementing milk for the baby and supporting for the mother. Furthermore, demanding work schedules can make it challenging for professional mothers to keep up with the near constant feeding schedule required when breastfeeding a child. Breastfeeding in Western countries, given nuclear families and work demands, is hard.
Enter baby formula. Today, it is almost universally acknowledged as being less nutritious than breast milk, but sometimes what can you do? Western mothers make a difficult choice about how to feed their children, weighing different outside pressures such as career and social pressure.
This choice should not be as difficult for women living in developing countries. Specifically here, I am discussing women who live in very poor conditions, women in the bottom half of income distributions in their already poor countries, living in rural locations with big extended families and little access to health or education. They do not have to meet the expectations of waged work, and they can more easily rely on a community of women to help them feed their children.
Enter baby formula. In the early 1970’s, Nestle began marketing its baby formula in then third-world countries. (Today, we do not use the term “third-world countries.” It is a Cold War term. The first world was the United States and the countries it cared to align with and protect. The second world was the Soviet Union and the countries it cared to align with and protect. The third world was everyone else. Note my use of developed and less developed or developing countries.) Nestle had made significant profits from mothers in developed countries. They saw more profits to be made to many many other mothers around the world, many of whom have far higher fertility rates than their wealthier counterparts in the United States and Europe.
The catch was that Nestle had to create a need where none existed. So they used women in medical uniforms to travel to villages and homes, telling a story about how mothers were all undernourished and therefore giving their children less nutritious milk. Baby weight and nutrition as linked to maternal weight and nutrition is a legitimate concern for public health workers. However, the solution lies with redistributing family labor responsibilities and food shares, not with introducing baby formula.
In fact, baby formula was deadly. Mothers without access to clean water would not properly sanitize bottles, and, given the high costs of the formula, they would dilute the formula with dirty water to make it last. Babies died of malnutrition the world over.
The Infant Formula Action Coalition launched a global boycott of Nestle products. Nestle is an enormous parent company that owns a dizzying array of food items, ranging from hip Blue Bottle Coffee Co to Gerber Baby to Lean Cuisine to Arrowhead to Nestle Crunch Bars. This brought communities the world apart together in understanding the political economy of profits, health, and food. This boycott has continued on and off to the present day. Despite gains in regulation at the World Trade Organization and the World Health Organization, Nestle continues to mislead consumers with their marketing in search of greater profits.