By Molly M. Ginty
Monday, November 7, 2011
The U.S. is joining a global consensus about the public-health importance of breast milk. But a federal agency with huge sway over infant nutrition still distributes more than half the infant formula sold in the nation. A special investigation of infant formula and WIC.
(WOMENSENEWS)--In recent years, it had begun to seem as if the United States were joining the rest of the world in championing the wonders of mother's milk.
Following the lead of World Health Organization, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services now endorses exclusive breastfeeding for six months, a time period widely recognized as necessary for long-term disease resistance for both mothers and babies.
The U.S. Surgeon General launched a campaign in January 2011 to reduce the obstacles to breastfeeding.
First Lady Michelle Obama has added breastfeeding to her "Let's Move" project to fight childhood obesity.
The Internal Revenue Service is on board too, ruling in February that breast pumps and other nursing supplies could qualify for tax breaks.
And the health reform law required many employers to provide nursing women on their payrolls with lactation breaks starting in January 2011.
However, the federal program with arguably the greatest practical influence over the nation's infant-feeding practices--the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC--continues to distribute more than half the infant formula sold in the U.S. each year. That formula, which is provided to WIC at a discount, cost taxpayers an estimated $627 million in 2008, the most recent figure available (equivalent to a $2 billion value on the retail market).
And the habits and brand loyalty formed by the WIC rebate system can hook women on paying retail prices for formula once their stipend runs out each month.
WIC, which provides extra nutrition to low-income pregnant women and infants who may not be able to afford the food they need, enrolls women and children who live at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level, or below $27,214 per year for a single mother and her child.
WIC helps feed 2.14 million women and 2.17 million infants a year; roughly half of all U.S. infants.
On the one hand, WIC was the first U.S. agency to join the global consensus on breastfeeding in 1997--far ahead of the Health Department or any White House programs. That year, it joined the American Academy of Pediatrics in formally recommending six months' exclusive nursing. In 2004, WIC also began hiring breastfeeding peer counselors and in 2009, it began distributing more food to enrollees who breastfeed than those who do not.
On the other hand, WIC, which provides formula to low-income mothers who need it for health reasons or who choose not to breastfeed their babies, continues to funnel what critics say is too much money to infant-formula makers, propping up products its own counselors call second-best.
This contradiction is partly due to an extremely effective press blitz by formula companies, which have met official U.S. breastfeeding promotion with a barrage of ads and in-hospital promotions that health advocates have been unable, politically, to do much about.
Touting new chemical ingredients in their products, formula makers target many of the neighborhoods that WIC serves--low income communities of color--with ads claiming that their new, enhanced formulas offer the nutritional equivalent of mother's milk. Manufacturers also offer mothers free hospital discharge packs, free product shipments to their doorsteps, and discount shopping coupons.
"Formulas containing [common additives] DHA and ARA have been shown to provide visual and mental development similar to that of the breastfed infant," assert promotional materials from the International Formula Council, an industry trade group in Washington, D.C. The group describes these ingredients as backed by "years of research studying the clinical effects…in infants."
Most of that promising research, the council neglects to point out, was industry funded.
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