TCS Daily

World Health Assembly Coverage: The Ratsbane of Our Existence?

By Henry I. Miller - May 18, 2005 12:00 AM

GENEVA -- One of Shakespeare's characters sputters at an adversary, "I would the milk thy mother gave thee when thou suck'dst her breast had" contained ratsbane, a poisonous chemical. According to activists, it's not breast milk but infant formula that now may contain the infectious equivalent of ratsbane, so they are pushing for a worldwide ban on it.

The UN's World Health Organization will consider at the 58th World Health Assembly this week whether to require prominent warnings that pathogenic microorganisms are present in infant formula. The principal supporters of such labeling -- including such scientific and medical powerhouses as Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Nepal and Palau -- claim that the use of infant formula can lead to malnutrition and respiratory infections leading to death.

When formula is used as directed, this is all sheer nonsense, of course, but this initiative is the opening salvo in an ideological campaign to smear infant formula. If the activists are successful at banning or severely restricting the use of this legitimate and often-useful product, the consequences could be dire.

The allegations about infant formula are a mosaic of misrepresentations and half-truths, the most egregious of which is calculated confusion between feeding formula and bottle feeding. Formula is a safe and effective alternative when breast feeding is impossible or impractical, but most bottle feeding in developing countries employs inferior substitutes, such as sugar or rice water, tea, cow's milk or cassava flour and water. These are insufficiently nutritious and, thus, dangerous to a developing infant.

Most health professionals, as well as the producers of infant formula, agree that breast feeding is the preferred method for feeding babies. As long ago as 1869, Henry Nestlé, the founder of the company that bears his name -- which is one of the largest manufacturers of infant formula worldwide -- said, "During the first few months, the mother's milk will always be the most natural nutriment, and every mother, able to do so, should herself suckle her child."

But infant formula is a proven source of nutrition that may be needed under a variety of circumstances. Women may choose to work outside the home, or they may not produce sufficient milk, for example, and in developing countries the mothers of infants may have succumbed to malaria, tuberculosis, HIV or other diseases. With the spread of HIV rampant in the developing world, it is especially important to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV through breast milk. According to the UN's own statistics, up to 20 percent of infants born to HIV-positive mothers may acquire HIV through breast-feeding.

The attacks on formula are scientifically unfounded and misguided. Similar to other food products, its manufacturers must assure that it is neither adulterated nor misbranded. In plain English, the product may not be harmful or labeled inaccurately. But like the tomatoes, potatoes, yogurt and milk we buy at the supermarket, preparations of formula are "clean" but not sterile. They may contain harmless microorganisms (as does the air we breathe), while by contrast, drugs like injectable vaccines and intravenous fluids are completely sterile

This is hardly the first instance of Western elites (read: radical NGOs) imposing their values on others in the name of safety and health. Two generations ago, environmental groups persuaded American regulators to ban the use of DDT, by far the best agent known for the control of malaria-causing mosquitoes. That prohibition, which has now been extended to much of the world, has had disastrous consequences for the developing world: a death toll in the scores of millions and huge losses of societal productivity, to say nothing of quality of life.

Another example is activists' attacks on agricultural biotechnology. Their fear-mongering and agitation have elicited unscientific and excessive regulation (and even some outright bans), making it impossible for poor farmers to exploit fully the benefits of high-tech farming. In parts of the world where even in good years the crop surpluses are meager, food security has been needlessly jeopardized.

The campaign against infant formula is much the same: activists imposing their ideologies and biases on others, attempting to arrogate control of the products and lifestyle choices that are available to society at large.

If the American and European positions are to reflect not only good science but also the milk of human kindness, they will oppose inappropriate strictures on formula.

Henry I. Miller, a physician and molecular biologist, is a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the co-author of "The Frankenfood Myth." From 1989-1993 he headed the FDA's Office of Biotechnology.

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