I’ve been plenty skeptical in the past of how American breastfeeding activists basically make bottle-using women seem like second class citizens who don’t care about their children. Since most of these parents were raised on formula, I’m not sure that the correlation between good parenting and breastfeeding is so strong as they claim. But there’s no question that one advantage of breastfeeding is that it is free. So for poor women around the world, it makes a lot of sense. But then there are multinational corporations who make profit off convincing women to use formula, using ideas of modernity and progress that sells so much western ideology and products in the developing world. And as Paul Adler points out, that’s what is driving Donald Trump and his corporate hacks to oppose the breastfeeding resolution from the World Health Assembly. Moreover, this very issue has a long history.
Starting in 1974, left-leaning think tanks, journalists and consumer groups in England and the United States entered the fray, lobbing sharp criticism at multinational firms selling breast-milk substitutes. They targeted Nestlé in particular, the largest company in the industry and one of the world’s biggest multinationals. After meetings, pamphlets and lawsuits failed, a group of U.S. activists organized a consumer boycott of Nestlé, launched July 4, 1977.
The Nestlé boycott soon went global, piquing the interest of high officials at the World Health Organization. Over the next several years, consumer activists from Malaysia to the United States prodded and worked with the WHO (and UNICEF) to craft the International Code of Marketing of Breast-Milk Substitutes. The code called for restrictions on a range of corporate promotional techniques, such as incentivizing doctors to hand out free infant formula samples to new mothers.
To make the WHO-UNICEF code of conduct a reality, the World Health Assembly needed to vote on its ratification. But the Reagan administration stood in the way. Although the code was not legally binding and enjoyed widespread support even from Reagan’s conservative ally Margaret Thatcher, the United States cast the sole vote against the code.
At the time, many critics assumed that a Republican administration was siding with the parochial profit motives of one industry. Yet from the vantage point of the Reagan administration and its ideological partners at the Heritage Foundation, the challenge was bigger.
Less concerned with a single industry, conservatives instead worried about the future of the world economy. Writing in a journal for another conservative think tank, the American Enterprise Institute, Kenneth Adelman, then deputy U.S. representative to the United Nations, called the WHO-UNICEF code a “stunning defeat . . . to Western interests, health groups, and corporate enterprises.” Meanwhile, Jeane Kirkpatrick, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, feared the rise of an “iron triangle” of nongovernmental organizations, U.N. officials and Global South governments intent on waging international class war against private enterprise. Ultimately, what the right worried about was the rise of an international regulatory state.
In fact, Paul wrote a guest post for the This Day in Labor History series on this very issue a few years ago, so you can read more detail about the Nestlé boycott and why it matters here.