Friday, October 1, 2010

A Formula For Wealth: Abbott Labs and the Rhetoric of Choice

I’ve read a lot of flap over the last couple days about the Similac formula recall by Abbott Labs, Inc. Apparently there were a significant number of cans of powdered formula that contained beetle parts. I thought, ‘Where could I go with this?’ I guess I could say that it’s a shame Abbott Labs, Inc. is seeking to eliminate the most natural ingredient in its infant formulas, but I’ve chosen to go in a different direction.

You see, when I read blogs or editorials related to this particular problem, I don’t see people pointing fingers at Abbott Labs, Inc. Instead, I see a great deal of hatred toward breastfeeding advocates, who have wisely used this incident as a means to criticize formula usage overall. Breastfeeding advocates shouldn’t be using this issue to further their own agenda, these authors claim. Talking about breastfeeding at a time like this will only make parents who could not breastfeed or who choose to formula feed feel worse.

Now, why are breastfeeding advocates the target for this? If Coca-cola recalled millions of cans of soda due to beetle parts, who among us would blame healthy eating advocates for the backlash? I doubt too many of us would stray to that extreme, yet it seems to be the gut reaction coming from the blogsphere. Whenever anything goes wrong with formula, blame breastfeeders. Yes, that makes sense.

Actually, it makes perfect sense, if you consider where it comes from. If this formula recall is a concern for you, you bought into an advertising campaign that cost millions and brought in many hundreds of billions more. Abbott Labs, Inc., need not defend itself, because you will do it for them. And you will demonize anyone who dares to criticize them. It’s been a smooth campaign, begun decades ago, possibly even before you were born and certainly before you became a parent.

In the 1960s, there was a new rhetoric and civil rights structure emerging from second-wave feminism: the rhetoric of choice. Women who previously had not had the choice to work (especially after marriage) could get a job if they chose. They could apply for credit cards and bank accounts in their own names. They could obtain contraception that was controlled by them instead of their partners, allowing them to delay childbearing without having to forgo having sex. By the 1970s, the language of choice had been expanded to include a woman’s right to end her pregnancy if she didn’t want a baby. Yes, it seemed that women’s choices were virtually endless.

It didn’t take long for industry and capitalism to pick up on this idea. As the decade wore on, women had the choice to go to work or to have an abortion. But they also had the choice to buy, buy, buy, products that applauded and reinforced the notion of women’s choice. Herein choice was commodified. For every choice provided by a company, there was always a subtext. ‘You have the choice to feed your baby formula’ also meant ‘You have the choice not to breastfeed.’

What the formula companies forgot to mention was that they were doing everything they could to prevent you from having any choice at all. In the 1970s in the United States, breastfeeding was all but nonexistent. Doctors, who at the time were convinced that formula was superior to breastmilk, gave women shots to dry up their milk without their consent and sometimes, without their knowledge. Instead of critical-thinking being the rhetoric of choice, in the realm of infant feeding, formula became the rhetoric of choice.

The sad part is that this attitude continues to this day. Whenever a breastfeeding advocacy group dares to discuss the inherent risks of formula (which are many), formula advocates and formula feeding moms unite to decry the group, saying that breastfeeding advocates are trying to take away a woman’s choice. After all, the rhetoric of choice is still formula.

So, how does this happen? It’s sneakier than you think. When you become pregnant, it’s most likely that you will seek out an obstetrician and a hospital for your care. When you go to your OB for your first visit, you are given a packet of information about prenatal and early infant care. Chances are, you’ll also be given a formula sample.

Why is this? Shouldn’t doctors be advocating breastfeeding? Of course, and they do. But when you consider the training most doctors receive on infant feeding, you’ll understand why. Doctors may receive as little as one day of training in infant feeding, which I would argue is nowhere near enough to be able to support a breastfeeding mother. As it turns out, it’s designed that way. Many of the infant feeding seminars that provide that one day of training to doctors (pediatricians in particular) are sponsored by and often run by formula companies. They may provide information about breastfeeding, but it is full of inaccuracies and always pushes formula as the safer bottom line. Doctors are leading from their training and their experience, and for most of them, that experience is and always has been formula. After all, the doctors of today, just like the mothers of today, were children during the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and they were most likely formula-fed themselves. They have little to no experience with breastfeeding unless they or their partners have done it themselves and therefore are too often uncomfortable with guiding women to do it. Their advocacy, when it should be strongest, becomes wishy-washy.

The formula companies have paid good money to ensure that this continues. They compete for exclusive contracts at doctors’ offices and hospitals the way Coca-cola and Pepsi compete for exclusive contracts at sports stadiums. The real loser here, however, is you and your baby. You have no sanctuary from this sales pitch, not even in the medical establishment. For when breastfeeding doesn’t start out perfectly (and it never does), your hospital will likely encourage you to supplement with formula. They may even give you a choice of brands. And chances are, the brand you will choose will be the brand of samples you were given at the OB’s office. How convenient.

How uncomfortable, I mean. The fact is the formula companies aren’t entirely to blame. When they fed you this line of crap, that their formula was better than the other brands and as good as breastfeeding (easier, too!), you bought it hook, line, and sinker. Realize that this is an uncomfortable truth for me too. I bought the bad breastfeeding advice I got from the nurses at my hospital. My daughter had a perfect latch for breastfeeding, and seemed satisfied between feedings. But no, I had ‘low supply.’ I had to supplement with formula or she could die. When they asked me which brand I’d like to use, I told them Similac. I had no other reason to choose this brand apart from the fact that my OB’s office had given me samples for it. Expecting to exclusively breastfeed, I had not researched any formulas at all. And chances are, neither did you. You chose the formula your doctor gave you for free, not because s/he thought it was the best but because that company had spent a great deal of money earning that exclusive contract. You were taken for a sucker, and the shameful thing is that you bought it.

But the shame and misfortune doesn’t stop there. Formula companies will always have billions more at their disposal than breastfeeding advocates, which means that misinformation about breastfeeding will always be easier to find. They lobby to keep the risks of formula silent, always, always under the rhetoric of choice. But you should be reading between the lines. Never forget that these companies do not and never have had your best interests in mind. Their interests lie in getting you to line their pockets, beetle parts and all.

And that isn’t even the worst part. These companies have spent decades learning how to market to you and they are true experts at it. They can even get you to advertise and defend them. It’s not just how you walk the playground or the coffee shop flashing that formula-branded diaper bag you received at the hospital (along with a bunch of formula samples, of course). They have played the rhetoric of choice so well and for so long that they know you will associate the act of formula-feeding (due to their careful advertising and sabotage of your breastfeeding efforts) with your ability to make choices as a parent. They know that, as a new parent, you are insecure in your choices, and eager to associate yourself with people who did the same thing. They also know that, when you are confronted with an entity (your child’s doctor, an advocacy group, even other moms) advocating a different decision, chances are you will criticize that entity simply because it recommends something different.

It’s even better for them if you tried to breastfeed, and were unable to succeed (often because of their efforts to sabotage you). Then, they can prey upon your untargeted anger and guilt and turn it into indignation. Then, when someone makes note of the risks of formula, the companies don’t have to respond, because you will. You’ll assert that formula is NOT rat poison (which no breastfeeding advocacy group has ever said it was), and that formula is just fine and a great choice for women who cannot or do not want to breastfeed. And by doing that, on Facebook, on an online community, on your blog, at your playgroup, you have both reinforced the formula companies’ campaign and distracted others from questioning the risks of formula. And the more you feel pressed to defend your decision by defending the formula companies, the more likely you become to choose formula-feeding at the outset for all your subsequent children. Congratulations, you are now part of the machine.

This is indeed an uncomfortable truth, but one that mothers everywhere need to be able to recognize and admit. Parenthood is full of discomfort; you knew that going into it. There’s no need for you to be martyr, but in avoiding martyrdom, try also to avoid being a patsy.


  1. You can't see me, but I'm giving you a standing ovation right now. :-)