Breast milk substitutes: What’s the real story?

Too much ado about 3%, given that…

“…97% of children are breastfed and only three per cent of children less than three years receive commercially produced infant formula.” – Kenya Demographic and Health Survey 2008–2009, as cited in this Daily Nation story

It would be interesting to know the real story behind the banning of advertising for infant formula.

Clearly, our mothers need no schooling on the superiority of breast milk over formula. As such, unless there has been a dramatic change in the 2010–2012 period, why the deep preoccupation and legislation to address a mere 3%? This, at a time when people are being butchered in the the Tana delta, doctors are on strike, and the teachers have only just resumed work from their strike.  These are only a few much more serious events that have grave impact on the wellbeing of children – their right to life, care and education.

Doesn’t Parliament have more urgent business to attend to? Aren’t they running behind schedule to enact crucial legislation and establish institutions critical to implementing the new Constitution? Shouldn’t they be more concerned about respecting constitutional provisions and preparing the country for elections to avoid a repeat of the 2007–2008 bloodbath? Why this curious concern with a non-problem, given that we have not even had a baby formula crisis like China did?

For the 3% that are on formula, it is very likely that there are very sound reasons  –  inflexible work schedule,  HIV status, absent or dead mother, breastmilk drying up, maternal medication or ill health, parental wisdom, foundlings that end up in children’s homes, and so on. It is highly unlikely that the parents and caregivers have opted for formula purely on the strength of  advertisements and promotional campaigns by industry.

Exactly what change is this legislation aiming to bring about?  Is it that we’re seeking 100% compliance on breastfeeding and therefore need to rope in this ‘errant’ 3% by ‘saving’ them from industry’s ‘evil advertisements and campaigns’? Is it that merely inserting advisory text that breast milk is best would not be adequate to save these apparent simpletons from themselves? Parents and adults are not so gullible or stupid as to be so wowed by adverts that they abandon breastmilk for formula willy-nilly! Indeed, if our legislators are truly and sincerely concerned about infant health, there’s so much more substantive action that they could take to promote the same.

While we all appreciate the dangers of tobacco and alcohol and hence the need to restrict advertising, does infant formula represent an equal danger to be treated in this scurrillous fashion? Is baby formula addictive? Behaviour-altering? A danger to inadvertent second-hand consumers? If indeed we were keen on protecting the health of our children, wouldn’t we have far greater impact by regulating sale and consumption of junk food that has been proven to be the primary cause of a worldwide epidemic of childhood obesity? If indeed the purpose was to promote breastfeeding, shouldn’t this legislation also make mandatory provision for workplace crèches and nursing-parent-friendly policies, longer maternity leave, flexitime and flexiplace for nursing parents, tax waivers on breast-pumps and related equipment, and so on?

The Sunday Nation’s editorial on 23 September 2012 entitled “Mother’s milk is best, so why oppose Bill?” treats this new law rather shabbily. It does however raise other related fundamental points:

The World Health Organisation has drawn up a raft of recommendations on how governments should push industry to reduce consumption of fat, sugar, salt, tobacco and alcohol. One suggestion is to reduce the promotion and advertising of foods high in these ingredients, especially targeting children, because of their contribution to obesity and other life-threatening conditions. Already some countries have banned the hawking of soft drinks and other unhealthy foods in or around schools….The legislators must find the right balance informed by available scientific evidence.

We are well advised to mistrust big industry since they are – by nature and definition – about making money, often with total disregard of the greater good. But industry will by and large try not to kill off the goose that lays the golden egg, aka, the consumer – a statement that we, alas, cannot make with as much certainty about our politicians. So, to somehow imply that this law is about protecting us from industry is totally naive. What it does in essence is to limit our right to information, and our even more fundamental right as parents to decide on what is best for our children based on full information, given the circumstances in which we are raising them. The concerns raised by industry on flaws in the law appear legitimate, and really need to be addressed without the rather cheap attempt by the proponents of the law to make it appear that industry concerns are motivated by nothing but runaway capitalistic greed.

Above all, we should really be asking the fundamental question as to whether the corporate social responsibility activities previously undertaken by industry as part of their marketing and public relations will now cease. Will the government now step in to meet the needs of children’s homes, charities, hospitals, and so on, previously met by formula manufacturers?

It is clear that in Kenya, as borne out by the statistics, the breastfeeding battle is already won. Therefore, inasfar as baby formula is concerned, the government should restrict itself to ensuring that it is of appropriate quality, and that marketing information is accurate and ethical, to enable those that must – or choose to – use it, make an informed decision. To be as prescriptive as this law could potentially be is to insult the intelligence of parents, and to trample on their fundamental right to make the choices they deem best for their offspring – and surely the government cannot allege to be more concerned with the welfare of the child than that child’s own parents!

So again, I wonder, and ask: what is happening here? What is the untold story?

Should we be smelling a rat?

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About Njeri Okono

I am, therefore I write
This entry was posted in Gender, Governance, Kenya, Law, Motherhood, Politics and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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