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Capitalising babies

By Helen Lobato - posted Monday, 24 November 2008

What does the melamine-laced milk disaster have in common with the collapse of the childcare giant ABC Learning?

In September this year, China launched a nationwide probe into all baby milk powders to see whether tainted formula was the cause of the deaths of four children, and the severe illness of a further 53,000 young babies and children. The inquiry found that melamine, not a foodstuff but a component in plastic and counter-tops, was added to watered down cow's milk in order to make a profit. The chemical melamine boosts the nitrogen content and is an indication of the protein present. The availability of milk with additional protein was sure to have been marketed and exploited for all it was worth.

In considering this disaster, it is appropriate to wonder what has happened to the nourishing art of breastfeeding in China and elsewhere around the globe. Breastfeeding in China, as in most parts of the world is sadly declining. In Shanghai, 50 per cent of women now breastfeed their babies for little more than three months and less than half of all babies in the USA are exclusively breastfed during their first day or two in the hospital.


The popularity of formula feeding for infants has increased steadily since the industrial revolution when women began to leave their children behind to work in the factories. The first scientific breast milk substitute was invented in 1867 by a German chemist and was a combination of cow’s milk, flour, potassium bicarbonate, and malt. Today, the formula industry is a multibillion dollar industry that is not about health, but money; and has resulted in the continual erosion of breastfeeding undermining its benefits for infants and mothers.

Dr Naomi Baumslag writes that infant food companies influence government health policies and have made the medical profession their handmaiden. They use "science" to scare mothers, exploit women's working rights and men's desires to adapt to family realities.

The influence of the formula industry extends to doctors, nurses, and pediatric departments who are given money by formula companies for equipment, conferences, travel and publications, with the goal of enlisting their endorsement and promotion of the products. Governments are also on the payroll as they receive financial incentives for importing infant foods. In Zimbabwe, income is generated for governments through the 17.5 per cent sales tax on imported formula and a 10 per cent import duty. Thus, the government shares in the profits when mothers abandon breastfeeding.

In Tricks of the Infant food Industry, Dr Naomi Baumslag writes that:

Although scientific studies continue to attest to the superiority of breastmilk, bottle-feeding formula is becoming the norm. Aggressive formula marketing has deceived mothers into believing that formula is equivalent to breastmilk. Good lactating breasts have been removed from the mouths of infants and promoted only as sexual organs. The positive effect of breastfeeding on mothers' health has also been ignored. Throughout the world, scarce resources are used to buy formula when the money could be put to better uses.

And, in China, as a result of capitalist greed and corruption, babies who were formerly fed their mother’s milk, or fed by another lactating woman have been killed or made very unwell due to the addition of a chemical additive to baby formula; formula with its own set of problems when you consider what it contains.


In the United States, a $3 can of formula costs 22 cents to produce and contains waste and by-products from other industries such as whey from cow’s milk, lactose, sugar, rice, starch, cornstarch, soybeans, coconut and peanut oils. The corn and soy are likely to be genetically engineered and the formula itself can contain harmful bacteria and toxic substances, such as fluoride, aluminium, and carcinogenic chemicals.

Similarly when you look at the commercial child care industry that has grown into such a racket, that one childcare business, ABC Learning, has gone from holding a few dozen centres at the time of listing in 2001, to owning more than 1,200 at its peak, is now in receivership.

In a recent opinion piece published in The Age, Professor Deborah Brennan from the Social Policy Research Centre at the University of New South Wales, tells us how we got into this mess. The responsibility, she says, lies at the feet of the Hawke government, who in 1991, introduced market forces into the childcare sector. It did this by extending child-care assistance to the users of for-profit care and by changing the structure of Commonwealth funding to encourage private provision of services marginalising the community sector. Labor promised that the market would lead to greater choice and lower fees. It decreed that private businesses, not governments, should determine the location of services, even though huge public subsidies were involved.

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About the Author

Helen Lobato is an independent health researcher and radio broadcaster with community radio 3cr and at present is a co-producer of Food fight, a weekly program around food security issues. Helen has a background in critical care nursing.

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