It's clear that the most recent rash of babies killed and sickened by tainted baby formula ought to be a wake-up call for Americans. Three Chinese babies are dead. At least 53,000 are sick at last count, more than 12,000 hospitalized. Though an ocean away, these are real cases, real people, real babies. The artificial milk they were fed was found to contain traces of melamine, causing tragedy that's almost too horrific for me as a mother to imagine.
But that wouldn't happen here, you say? China is known for its product quality and safety problems, you say?
Maybe melamine wouldn't make its way into the U.S. foodstream. I, for one, am proud that the FDA, food manufacturers, retailers and farmers do a pretty darn good job of keeping the U.S. food supply safe. But at the same time, our babies are too important to put at risk. Any risk. Anytime we circumvent a good system (human lactation) for a flawed one (artificial baby milk), we put people at risk. In this case, it's round-cheeked, oh-so-soft-skinned people who generally weigh fewer than 30-some pounds and can't speak up for themselves.
Baby formula has already put American babies at risk. I'm not even talking the everyday risks of feeding it — the increased risk for ear infections, allergies, diabetes, juvenile rheumatoid arthritis, many childhood cancers, SIDS, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, breast and ovarian cancer, and a host of other diseases. I'm talking the extraordinary recalls of baby formula right here in the US of A.
May 30, 2008. Abbott recalls two different manufacturing lots of a formula made for babies and kids with hypercalcemia. Turns out the stuff oxidized. The FDA warns, "Consumption of highly oxidized foods can cause gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea." Ooh, it's a voluntary recall. Is that supposed to make me feel better?
May 28, 2007. Abbot recalls Similac Special Care bottles given for preemies "because they do not contain as much iron as indicated on the label." Risk: anemia, according to the press release.
July 9, 2004. The FDA alerts consumers not to feed a formula sold in New York in an Asian market "because the safety and nutritional adequacy of infant formula from China is unknown" and it could result in severe illness or death. Analysis "found the formula to contain less than 1/7 of the federally required minimal amount of protein per serving, approximately 1/4 the required amount of fat and only minute amounts of declared calcium and magnesium."
January 23, 2004. The FDA warns consumers not to feed a product called "Better than Formula Ultra Infant Immune Booster 117." It isn't regulated as a formula, but it's labeling seems to indicate otherwise. Better yet, don't feed any crap in a can.
February 23, 2006. Mead Johnson recalls GENTLEASE powdered infant formula for "metal particles, consisting of up to 2.7 millimeter in size."
October 25, 2002. 1.5 million cans of Wyeth formula recalled by the FDA because "products may be contaminated with Enterobacter sakazakii." Distributed nationwide under the labels Parent's Choice, Walgreens Infant Formula, Safeway Select, HomeBest Soy, American Fare, Hill Country, Kozy Kids and Baby Basics. (They bothered to issue a press release 7 days later. I've worked in PR. 7 days = no good. They bothered to send e-mails and registered letters 11 days later. Click here for the FDA Enforcement Report.)
September 14, 2001. Nestle recalls cans of Carnation Follow-Up Formula sold at Wal-mart in Texas. Excessive magnesium. Risk: Severe adverse health effects such as low blood pressure and irregular heart beat.
July 27, 2001. Mead Johnson issues a nationwide allergy alert concerning Lactofree Infant Formula.
October 6, 1999. Mead Johnson reports that labels from Next Step Powdered milk or soy -based toddler formula were removed from cans. A Nutramigen label was stuck on instead. Nutramigen is a more expensive, "hypoallergenic" infant formula. Risk: "mild to severe allergic reactions."
June 1997. Isomil brand Soy Protein Infant Formula with Iron. Does not contain the labeled amount of inositol.
September 1996. Alsoy Soy Formula. "... manufactured with lids intended for ready-to-feed formula. The potential exists for a consumer to follow the lid directions (DO NOT ADD WATER) and not properly dilute the formula prior to feeding."
September 1996. Carnation Follow-up Infant Formula. 11,317 cases "may have been produced under insanitary conditions whereby it may have been rendered injurious to health. Furthermore, the product appears separated and has been linked with mild gastrointestinal illness."
February 1995. FDA special agents made their arrest in a scheme to distribute formula in counterfeit packaging. 38,000 pounds of powder were seized from the counterfitter's shop. 6,366 cans of fake Similac were taken from retailers' and wholesalers' shelves. How many had already made it out of the stores and were fed to babies? An FDA report says, "The agency did not receive any reports of illness attributable to the counterfeit formula." Ooh, I'm sure that makes parents confident.
October 1994. Carnation Good Start Infant Formula Concentrated Liquid. "A small number of cans were found to contain non-pathogenic spoilage organisms indicating the product has the remote possibility of being contaminated with other microorganisms."
December 1993. Nursoy Soy Protein, 10,250 cases distributed in the Midwest. "Some cans are contaminated with Klebsiella pneumoniae and Pseudomonas aeruginosa which poses a mild to moderate hazard to health in the form of gastrointestinal stress to infants and new borns with developing microbial flora."
September 22, 1993. Isomil Soy Formula with Iron. "Product is in cans with peeling can liners."
September 1993. Infant formulas from Maple Island, Inc. "Defendants were charged with adulterating their products because they were manufactured, prepared, processed, packaged, and held for sale under insanitary conditions whereby they may have become contaminated with filth or rendered injurious to health. Defendants were further charged with adulterating products manufactured attheir facilities due to the presence in those products and in the equipment that produced those products, of salmonella bacteria, a poisonous or deleterious substance,which may have rendered them injurious to health."
June 28, 1993. Soyalac recalled. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report from the CDC shows three cases of babies contracting Salmonella "linked to consumption of contaminated powdered infant formula." Recall was more than 7 months after possible manufacture date.
June 1993. Mead Johnson Nutramigen brand. 102,048 bottles distributed nationwide. "The product was contaminated with glass particles."
I'm tired, and breastfeeding my own baby as I type this, so I've skipped some that you're welcome to Google if you want to have the pants scared off you (or the diapers, as it may be): furan in infant formulas, beriberi from lack of thiamine in Israeli formula that may have made its way into the US by mail, "labeling errors," etc. Frankly, I'm tired of reading the FDA dockets.
Does the FDA protect our babies from bad formula batches?
So you're still confident the FDA can catch these contaminated batches? Maybe, but when? After they're fed to babies? Whose baby? Yours? The agency says, "Due to the susceptible nature of the population affected by infant formulas, the recall of a violative infant formula is to receive the highest agency priority." That's real nice.
The FDA's policy requires them to complete the recall process within 5 days after a manufacturer alerts them to a problem. Five days. That's fine if the government is recalling a car for an annoying, non-safety-related problem — as happened to my last two vehicles. But for a baby's sole source of nutrition? No thank you.
How can we manufacture artificial baby formula when we don't even know what to put in it?
Researchers haven't even identified what is in breast milk, let alone how to replace it and put it in a can. So far, they do know that human milk contains more than 200 elements. Some simply cannot be manufactured, such as the immunity factors.
FDA requires that the following ingredients be included in infant formula. There are 26 here. That leaves at least 124 ingredients of human milk missing from artificial substitutes.
- linoleic acid
- vitamin A
- vitamin D
- vitamin E
- vitamin K
- thiamin (vitamin B1)
- riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- vitamin B6
- vitamin B12
- folic acid
- pantothenic acid
- vitamin C
And what is actually put in the can, babies can't always use. For example, we hear so much about iron-fortified formula because babies' bodies cannot process the iron in formula. What about the iron in mother's milk? Babies readily absorb nearly 100% of it. It's all about bioavailability, baby ... or, babies.
DHA, RHA, my left foot
It makes me sick to be subjected to baby formula marketing. They boast of new additions, like DHA and RHA which Nestle marketing says are "naturally found in breastmilk and are important for mental and visual development." This long-chain polyunsaturated fatty-acid fortification was introduced in the early 2000s. What about babies fed formula before then? If I follow their marketing, it was deficient in something so very important for mental and visual development. The list goes on. 1984: Taurine fortification introduced. Late 1990s: Nucleotide fortification introduced. If I feed formula today, in 2008, what oh-so-important ingredient will be added in 2010 that my baby will have missed out on?
Manufacturing mother's milk is impossible
Even the artificial milk manufacturers have long known they'll never be able to adequately mimic mother's milk. In one dozen-plus-year-old journal article, two Abbot Laboratories researchers write that it has become "increasingly apparent that infant formula can never duplicate human milk." They explain, "Human milk contains living cells, hormones, active enzymes, immunoglobulins and compounds with unique structures that cannot be replicated in infant formula." (Endocrine Regulations, March 1994) And then they go on with a bunch of blather about trying to match "performance" instead. Whatever.
More concerns I'll let you pursue on your own:
- Bisphenol A in baby bottles.
- Do tired parents at 3 a.m. actually sterilize formula feeding equipment as directed on the label? (Short answer: No.)
- What about the many, many dilution errors, resulting in too-concentrated or too-dilute artificial milk fed to babies?
Let me sum this up for you.
- Breastfeed your baby.
- See #1. Even if someone tries to say you don't make enough milk. Get help. This is very, very rare, yet women are still fed this line all the time. Want to hear a list of my friends who have successfully breastfed with only one breast? Breastfed adopted babies, some even without previous lacatations? Yes, you can breastfeed if you're on medication, but you may need help to choose the right one.
- If you have no breasts, have AIDS in a country with a safe water supply, are currently undergoing radiation or are a crack addict, you may seek another solution. The World Health Organization ranks formula as 4th choice, after breastfeeding, wet nursing and donated breast milk by bottle.
- If you "choose" formula because you think breastfeeding is gross (yeah, I actually hear this one), because you think you must switch to formula after 6 months (Where does that come from? Oh yeah, the formula manufacturers.), because you think Dad or Grandma may want a turn caring for the baby (how 'bout diapers, rocking, baths, walks ...) or because you think a bottle is more convenient (the grass is always greener), then see #1.