(WOMENSENEWS)–I can’t put a date on when the first survey arrived in my mailbox, but I remember feeling dazed and bleary and so it must have been within a few months of my son’s birth. I opened the envelope. The "National Institute of Infant Nutrition" had selected me to take part in a study of "the breastfeeding and formula-feeding habits of American households."

"We greatly appreciate your time in helping us with this important research," said the letter.

Dutifully, I ticked off the pertinent boxes and sent it back.

Months later the same survey came again. Better rested this time, I noticed that most of the questions dealt with when and why I might have started buying formula. A Web search for "National Institute of Infant Nutrition" turned up nothing but questions from other puzzled moms.

Finally, the leader of my local La Leche League chapter confirmed what I had begun to suspect: What at first glance seemed an impartial scientific survey was in fact market research for a formula company–specifically, Abbott Labs, the Columbus, Ohio-based pharmaceutical conglomerate that makes Similac.

Lucrative Information

I wasn’t exactly surprised. New parents quickly learn that their spending habits are catnip for marketers. Abbott obtains the names and contacts of new parents from Experian, the global credit group. Any time a pregnant woman signs up for free samples of formula or a maternity clothes giveaway or even a hospital photo service, that information can be collected, analyzed and sold.

Still, the survey’s fake name and the obscuring of its real purpose rankled. Many moms, breastfeeding or not, would not go out of their way to help a formula company increase its market share. Abbott sends out approximately a million surveys each year, with a response rate of around 20 percent, according to a 2006 article in the journal Pediatrics.

How many of those 200,000 moms have time to dig around and understand how their information will be used?

"People fill this out thinking that it will help other babies, but that’s not true. It’s market research, not scientific research," said Marsha Walker, a registered nurse and executive director of the National Alliance for Breastfeeding Advocacy, based in Washington, D.C. "It’s deceptive, and that’s just plain nasty when you’re dealing with new mothers."

Helpful Side Effect

Deceptive it may be, but for decades the survey was also the most reliable authority on breastfeeding in the United States. The Ross Mothers Survey, as it was originally known, is the oldest in the business. In 1954, amidst a generational shift to formula feeding, the makers of Similac began a systematic study of infant feeding practices. The survey has continued uninterrupted since then, growing in size and frequency. From the beginning, the survey asked mothers if they breastfed in the hospital and the percentage of their baby’s nutrition that comes from breast milk, formula or other foods.

The data collected by Abbott was so steady and its sample size so large that it eclipsed other, more sporadic attempts to monitor breastfeeding rates. As recently as 2000, the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as the CDC, used the Abbott data as the baseline for national breastfeeding goals, as defined in its Healthy People 2010 report.

"When you look at the Healthy People indicators, no other area relied on the private sector," said Dr. Laurence Grummer-Strawn, chief of the nutrition branch of the CDC. "There was definitely a sense in the CDC that the government needed to collect its own data."

Finally in 2007 the CDC began to monitor breastfeeding through responses to the National Immunization Survey. Grummer-Strawn said he hasn’t seen Abbott data in years.

Question of Ethics

If there is no larger purpose to the Abbott survey than market research, why mislead respondents with the scientific-sounding mission? Hollie Andrews, a public affairs manager for Abbott, says that use of a pseudonym (the survey has also gone out as The Research Institute of Mother and Child Care) is necessary in order to obtain "unbiased" information.

"It is standard practice in consumer market research to either use a third-party supplier or other title where respondents are ‘blinded’ to the actual research sponsor," she said.

Such practice has limits, however, according to Michael Hyman, a professor at New Mexico State University at Las Cruces who studies the ethics of marketing research. He says that while surveys may leave out the sponsor’s name to prevent biased responses, they should at least give a general description of the sponsor and how the information will be used.

"The issue here is about consent. I need to know enough to make an informed decision to participate," said Hyman. "Bottom line: Marketing research should never be done in a way that compromises the public’s trust."

Personally, I don’t have a problem filling out marketing surveys; sometimes they ask interesting questions. But I don’t like to be duped. Next time the "National Institute for Infant Nutrition" appears in my mailbox, it’s going straight to the diaper pail.

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Lindsey McCormack is a journalist based in Queens, N.Y. She was recently selected as a 2011 Peter Jennings Fellow.

For more information:

Healthy People 2020: Maternal, Infant and Child Health:

"National Institute of Infant Nutrition" Survey:
https://womensenewsp.wpengine.com/sites/default/files/PDF_files/National Institute of Infant Nutrition_survey.pdf