After WWII, many westernized countries turned away from breastfeeding to bottle feeding infants for a variety of reasons. Bottle-feeding was seen to be more civilized, more modern, and less messy. Mothers that made this change were in luck! The formula made by companies like Nestlé — pharmacist Henri Nestle actually invented baby formula in 1867 — was backed by science, full of nutrients, and provided a great alternative to breast milk. So what could go wrong?
But faced with a declining population in the western world during the 1960s, things did go wrong and sales of formula fell. Baby formula companies had to find a new market for their product. Some companies, like Nestlé, turned to developing countries, providing mothers with propaganda and samples to get them hooked on a new way of feeding infants.
The Nestlé infant formula, however, had horrible repercussions in Africa, South America, and south Asian countries. Nestlé baby formula deaths skyrocketed, which led to a Nestlé boycott during the 1970s. The boycott didn't end the problem — it merely spurred the creation of international standards — but the offenses by corporations when it comes to meeting the needs of developing countries continues. Reminiscent of the Nestlé infant formula case is an even more recent African water scandal, and it seems that as always, corporate interests and making money will always win over basic human care.
Nestlé Sued The Magazine That Reported That Their Product Was Harmful... And Won
The first attention-grabbing article about Nestlé's baby formula distribution practices in third world countries came out in an article titled "Babies Mean Business" in The New Internationalist in 1973. The article accused Nestlé of three things when it came to their business practices in the third world:
"Creating a need where none existed.
Convincing consumers the products were indispensable.
Linking products with the most desirable and unattainable concepts—then giving a sample."
It was The Baby Killer booklet, a British publication, produced in 1974 that really sparked a global conversation about baby formula. When a German publisher translated The Baby Killer booklet and published "Nestle Kills Babies," Nestlé sued for libel. They spent two years in litigation and eventually won the suit. The judge in the case urged Nestle to adjust their advertising and publicity, however.
Nestlé Dressed Saleswomen Up Like Nurses To 'Counsel' Mothers About The Benefits Of Formula
When Nestlé and other milk companies began introducing their products to developing countries, they waged a full-on campaign, dressing their representatives in nurse uniforms and sending them out to proselytize. The "milk nurses" went to homes and hospitals to spread the word about this magic formula and, while some of them may have had some relevant educational background, most did not. They also spent time at maternity wards, offering advice about nutrition and feedings while giving mothers instructions about how to prepare their Nestlé products.
In Singapore, milk nurses became so problematic that they were banned from hospitals. As a result, they would simply wait outside for new mothers to leave and then give them samples. In Jamaica, milk nurses were able to get the names of new mothers and then visit their homes. In the Philippines, milk nurses visited public housing, locating homes with newborns and young children by the diapers hanging on clotheslines nearby.
Mothers Would Water Down The Milk Powder To Make It Last Longer, Lowering Its Nutritional Value
Once mothers were dependent upon formula to feed their children, the cost became a problem. As a result, many women began watering down the milk to make it last longer. They would add as much as three times the recommended amount of water, severely lowering the nutritional value of the formula. When researchers in Indonesia investigated this phenomenon, they found that "only one in four women had mixed the milk reasonably close to its recommended strength." In a committee hearing on Health and Scientific Research held in the United States in 1978, Dr. Alan Jackson testified that mothers were stretching cans of formula, which were supposed to last three days for one child, for two weeks while feeding two children with its contents.
Mothers In Developing Countries Didn't Have Access To Clean Water To Make The Formula So Their Babies Got Sick
Another problematic aspect when it came to mixing baby formula powders in underdeveloped countries was the use of contaminated water. Mothers were using water that was rife with fecal organisms, among other contaminants. When a nurse named Fatima Patel, who worked with Peruvians, testified before the US subcommittee in 1978, she told them about how problematic it could be to find clean water for the formula:
"The river is used as a laundry, as a bathroom, as a toilet and for drinking water... now, you can tell... but to get the fuel to boil that water, she has to go into the jungle, chop a tree trunk with a machete... and carry it on her back. No mother is going to use that hard-earned piece of wood to boil that water. So, the babies are drinking the contaminated water."
Additionally, the bottles they were using were not sterilized. Despite instructions on the cans of formula and from the milk nurses, women often lacked sufficient heating methods to sterilize bottles or had only one pot and didn't have the resources needed to prepare bottles properly.