by Marion Nestle
Apr 2 2024

ProPublica: the U.S. government interferes with international regulation of formula marketing

ProPublica has issued a major and highly importantt investigative report: The U.S. Government Defended the Overseas Business Interests of Baby Formula Makers. Kids Paid the Price.

The report documents how the U.S. has opposed marketing restrictions on infant formula throughout the world.

It refers specifically to what happened in Thailand over attempts to restrict the marketing of toddler formula (an unneccesary product).

In 2017, Thai health experts tried to stop aggressive advertising for all formula — including that made for toddlers. Officials feared company promotions could mislead parents and even persuade mothers to forgo breastfeeding, depriving their children of the vital health benefits that come with it. At the time, Thailand’s breastfeeding rate was already among the lowest in the world.

But the $47 billion formula industry fought back, enlisting the help of a rich and powerful ally: the United States government…U.S. officials delivered a letter to Bangkok asking pointed questions, including whether the legislation was “more trade restrictive than necessary.” They also lodged criticisms in a bilateral trade meeting with Thai authorities and on the floor of the World Trade Organization, where such complaints can lead to costly legal battles…In the end, though, the Thai government backed down. It banned advertising for infant formula but allowed companies to market formula for toddlers like Gustun — one of the industry’s most profitable and dubious products. The final law also slashed penalties for violators.

ProPublica also obtained documents detailing the arguments between trade and health officials over these policies.  See: Documents Show Internal Clash Before U.S. Officials Pushed to Weaken Toddler Formula Rules.

In this case, trade won over health.

The US government role in infant formula marketing goes way back to its opposition to the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes.  It is not a nice history and distressing that it continues.

More on infant formula tomorrow…