On Giants' Shoulders

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Beetles, larvae, and babies

By now most everyone on the web has heard about the Similac recall. There has been a lot of gloating among breastfeeding moms (or maybe it's just big sighs of relief) while formula feeding parents have one more reason to feel guilty. Some formula feeding parents have been giving Abbot Labs kudos for the recall, others have been looking at a class action suit against them.

So what's a lactavist to think about it all. Well first of all, I don't blame the parents. Some of them made uninformed choices about formula feeding based on the marketing schemes of formula companies, the experience of their own parents, and the lack of information from their doctors. Should they have made better choices? Given the education system in our country, and the degree to which mass media influences consumer choice, I don't put a whole lot of blame on their shoulders. Some mothers attempted to breastfeed, but got poor information, lousy support, and/or were faced with a fast turn around back to work. Their babies had to eat, I don't blame them either. A few moms fell into the category of women who simply can't produce a full milk supply. Some of them have been limping along, but they needed formula supplement. I certainly don't want them feeling guilty about not being able to produce all the milk their babies needed.

So, should any parents feel guilty about this. Well, perhaps. There are well educated parents who chose to formula feed because they thought it was less demanding, allowed the father to have an equal role, gave opportunities for nannies or other family members to care for the baby on weekends so they could go away for lovely baby free jaunts. Those parents were placing their own wishes ahead of their baby's (and even the mom's) health. So maybe they should feel guilty, and powerfully annoyed that the company didn't have better quality control. Of course most of them can now afford to switch to liquid formula that is doubtless beetle-free.

Formula manufacturers are dealing with the same problem that happens in kitchens around the country. However, they need to be operating on a level that is a higher standard than other food processors. Their product is the only food that an infant will consume for 4-6 months of its life. It needs to be produced in as sterile an environment as possible. They need quality control that is exceedingly high, not just ordinary quality control. If they focused as much effort on producing the best quality product possible as they do on marketing that product they might not have these sorts of problems. If my family wouldn't want me feeding them rice that had been contaminated by meal moths (I just had to throw a container out recently), how much more so should we expect to not be feeding pests to our babies.

Unfortunately, the reality is that formula manufacturers like other manufacturers are more responsible to their shareholders than they are to the consumer. They have to practice risk management, and figure out what an acceptable level of error is. No consumer should be deluded into thinking that these are anything other than hard-nosed businessmen for whom the bottom line is the most important consideration. Don't be duped by their P.R. people, this is business.

Here's where government can have a role. The government can put inspectors in plants and essentially hold the feet of the manufacturers to the fire. Instead of creating more bureaucratic positions in Washington, how about some food safety inspectors in formula plants?

If formula were available as a drug rather than simply as a food the manufacturing code might be more stringent. In addition, parents would realize that it's not the "normal" way to feed a baby. It may be in some cases the necessary way to feed a baby, but it isn't the normal one.

I truly hope that this particular recall will actually alert some parents to the dangers inherent in formula feeding. It isn't that breast is best, it's that breast is normal and formula feeding entails risks. If one mom tries a little harder in the first weeks with her baby and succeeds at lactation, well it will be the silver lining to this particular cloud.

The other thing I hope this recall does is to alert parents to the fact that formula powder is not sterile. So often parents simply mix it up with tap water thinking that all the sterilizing their grandmothers did was overkill. The World Health Organization has an excellent publication on formula preparation that I truly hope formula feeding parents read. Beetles (as gross as they sound) are actually the least of the things parents should be afraid of in the formula. Check out the publication and find out what else you should be concerned about and how to prepare formula to minimize the risks involved in using it www.who.int/foodsafety/publications/micro/PIF_Care_en.pdf

Babies can't take care of themselves, we have to do it for them. Optimally as far as feeding is concerned that means milk from their own mother for at least the first year of life. When that isn't possible the substitute needs to be as safely made both by the manufacturer and the parent as it can be.

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