Sunday, June 17, 2012

The troubled shores of breastfeeding advocacy

"Was the government to prescribe to us our medicine and diet, our bodies would be in such keeping as our souls are now."  Thomas Jefferson

I recently learned that the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) in April of this year received a grant of $694,000 from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.  "The three-year award will fund a two-part initiative to build and sustain national and state coalitions to generate collective action to implement policy, systems, and environmental changes need to increase breastfeeding rates and eliminate disparities."  

I have to admit that in the past I have been very critical of the US Breastfeeding Committee.  In 2004 I posted some questions regarding the US Breastfeeding Committee to Lactnet and was roundly criticized both publicly and privately.  I couldn't understand how an organization composed of government agencies and non-profit breastfeeding organizations worked.  Were meeting minutes available, could the public attend?  I also stated that I thought the DHHS, Health Department under the leadership of Tommy Thompson should be "booted" off the Committee.  I guess that was considered a very radical statement.  Tommy Thompson had put the brakes on the US Breastfeeding Ad Campaign--so I thought why should the US Health Department be part of the US Breastfeeding Committee.  Little did I understand the organization then and I can assure you I still am puzzled by this organization.  Marsha Walker, IBCLC, posted to Lactnet, ""I take great exception to Valerie's post regarding the nature of the USBC and the relationship with its member organizations. The USBC was formed to fulfill one of the 4 operational targets of the Innocenti Declaration, i.e. the formation of a national level breastfeeding committee.  There are about 35 organizations that belong to the USBC, including a number of government agencies who deal with breastfeeding through their programs."  There are according the USBC website 6 governmental organizations who are non-voting members of the USBC:  USDA, FDA, CDC, DHHS/Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality, DHHS/Indian Health Services, DHHS/Office on Women's Health.  Then there is the National WIC Association which is a voting member.

Is the National WIC Association a governmental body?  Or is it a private entity?  In 2010 the National WIC Association is listed as one of the organizations that is a Gold sponsor (donation between $1000-$4999) to the USBC.  The National WIC Association website states, "The National WIC Association (NWA) works on behalf of The WIC Program to gain bipartisan support in the US Congress, the support of successive Administrations and a broad coalition, including advocacy groups, health care and religious organizations and the CEOs of Fortune 500 corporations."  Some of their Business Council Partners are, Beech Nut, Kellogg Company, General Mills.  [General Mills has partnered with Nestle in several business arrangements].  

Personally, I have had issues with the US Breastfeeding Committee.  In 2000, I was in email correspondence with Linda Smith, IBCLC regarding my writings on Lactnet about human milk component patenting.  She asked me to put together a binder of the patents and the industries involved so that she could present it to the USBC.  At that time, I did not realize that the USBC was in part composed of representatives from US Governmental agencies.  It never crossed my mind that government agency representatives were allowed to participate in non-profit organizations.  Because I live in Florida with strict government in the sunshine laws, I assumed that any meetings with governmental representatives would have to be public and that meetings would have to be public record.  Guess I was wrong.  I don't really know what happened to that binder.  I was told by Linda Smith that someone from one of the government agencies took it for a period of time.  The explanations continuously changed over time and at this point in time I just chalk it up to a learned experience about how things work in breastfeeding organizations.  At that time I thought there was about 60 patents on human milk components.  Now we are way over 2000 human milk component patents.  But the reason I mention this at all is to let you, the reader, know that yes, I am biased when it comes to discussions of the USBC.  I think that having representatives of government agencies combined with non-profit breastfeeding organizations is not a good idea for a number of reasons.  How can non-profit breastfeeding organizations ever be critical of governmental policy?  Difficult to do.  In fact I would say it would be close to impossible.  How can the public determine whether government policy is being influenced by non-profits?  Whether the policy is good, bad, or neutral, is it okay for meetings between non-profits and representatives of government to be private?  Are any individuals of the various non-profits benefiting from close relationships with governmental agencies?  Referrals?  Government contracts?  We can't know.  We don't know because there is no transparency.  And yes I recognize that people in breastfeeding advocacy believe that they are the good guys therefore no questions should be asked.  And yes I believe breastfeeding advocacy is a force for good and is needed.  But there also has to be accountability, transparency in our work.

What do we know about this Kellogg Foundation Grant?  From the WK Kellogg Foundation website, "Both the Kellogg company and the W.K. Kellog Foundation were established by cereal industry pioneer Will Keith Kellogg, and the assets of the foundation originally consisted of Kellogg company stock.." Their stock portfolio is now diversified.  But the Foundation is still financially reflective of the Kellogg Company.  One of the troubling aspects of this Grant that was accepted by the USBC is that Kellogg Company is considered a stakeholder in infant formula and adult nutritionals.  In September of 2010 Kellogg along with other stakeholders in the formula industry:  Nestle, Danone, Mead Johnson, Abbott, Martek, PBM, Wageningen University, International Formula Council, USDA, Texas A & M University, Arla, etc. met in Orlando, Florida.  

The Kellogg Company has teamed up with Monsanto in adopting their low-linolenic soybean oil.  I am assuming that this soybean oil is in all probability a gmo product.  Martek Bioscience, maker of DHA, (another probable gmo product) signed a license agreement with Kellogg to supply DHA for their fortified foods. 

Many of Kellogg's food products (cereal, nutritonal bars, etc) contain soy protein isolate and whey protein isolate.  These are substances that are used in baby formulas.  Worthington Foods and Loma Linda are owned by Kellogg's.  Loma Linda was well-known for its soy infant formula.  Soy protein isolates have some health risks that are well-known.

Should we be troubled by the USBC acceptance of this funding?  What does it mean when we accept money from companies that are stakeholders in the very industry that competes against breastfeeding for the hearts and minds of mothers around the world?   How can we expect others to follow the WHO Code of infant formula marketing, when we accept monies from the stakeholders in that industry?  Do what I say, not what I do?
Copyright 2012 Valerie W. McClain