Baby Formula “Predatory” Marketing Has Placed Infants At Risk: Report
A series of three new studies highlights how baby formula manufactures have used deceptive marketing strategies to sell potentially unsafe cow’s milk-based formula to new parents, with little to no scientific evidence of its safety or nutritional value.
An international team of researchers working with the World Health Organization (WHO) published the reports last week in the medical journal The Lancet, describing the marketing practices of baby formula manufacturers as “predatory,” and indicating that it has resulted in less breastfeeding, despite the known health benefits for children.
The study comes as Abbott and Mead Johnson face a growing number baby formula NEC lawsuits that allege the companies placed their desire for profits before the health and safety of babies, by continuing to promote use of their products among premature infants, despite compelling evidence that has suggested for years that these vulnerable newborns face an increased risk of developing a devastating gastrointestinal condition known as necrotizing enterocolitis, which can occur suddenly after a baby is switched to formula in the hospital or NICU.
In these new studies, WHO researchers looked at the approaches used by baby formula manufacturers over the past few decades to increase sales, profits, and political power.
The report found that less than 50% of babies worldwide are breastfed, resulting in about $350 billion in economic losses each year. The commercial milk formula (CMF) industry, meanwhile, rakes in about $55 billion annually, spending $3 billion each year on marketing, which the researchers say is spent to deceive new mothers about the safety and nutritional value of products like Similac and Enfamil.
“The industry’s dubious marketing practices are compounded by lobbying, often covertly via trade associations and front groups, against strengthening breastfeeding protection laws and challenging food standard regulations,” an accompanying Lancet editorial states. “Women and families make decisions about infant feeding based on the information they receive, and a criticism of the CMF industry’s predatory marketing practices should not be interpreted as a criticism of women. All information that families receive on infant feeding must be accurate and independent of industry influence to ensure informed decision making. Marketing by the CMF industry is an interconnected, multifaceted, powerful system that knowingly exploits parents’ aspirations.”
When infant formula sales stagnated in the mid-20th century, the industry began promoting the cow’s milk-based products through free samples, depicting them as scientific advancements which were superior to breast milk, the researchers noted.
After receiving pushback from those tactics in the late 1970s, companies like Abbott and Mead Johnson established international lobbying groups to discourage external regulation of the industry, and diversified its product offerings, while shifting the marketing to target low-income and working mothers, the researchers found.
“The ability of marketing to encourage consumption of unhealthy products and worsen health outcomes is well established; multiple studies have shown this ability for tobacco, alcohol, and ultraprocessed foods,” the researchers warned. “The evidence is now clear that the marketing of CMF undermines breastfeeding and this, in turn, is associated with reduced health outcomes.
Numerous studies published over the past several decades have extolled the virtues of breastfeeding, which has been found to deliver the necessary nutrients a newborn needs to thrive, provides some key immunities already developed by the mother, and helps the infant’s digestive tract develop.
Studies have shown cow’s milk-based baby formula products do not confer the same benefits as breastfeeding and may increase the risk that premature infants develope necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC); a devastating disease that occurs when the intestines are invaded by bacteria that destroys the bowels, often resulting in the need for emergency surgery. NEC frequently results in severe, life-long injuries or death.
A January 2022 study found that that nutrients in breast milk help the intestinal epithelial layer mature in preterm infants, strengthening their resistance to NEC. However, these nutrients are not present in cow’s milk-based infant formula marketed for premature babies, such as the popular Similac and Enfamil product lines.
February 2023 Baby Formula NEC Lawsuit Update
There are currently about 100 Similac lawsuits and Enfamil lawsuits filed throughout the federal court system against Abbott and Mead Johnson by families of children diagnosed with NEC after being fed the formula, which have been centralized before U.S. District Judge Rebecca R. Pallmeyer in the Northern District of Illinois, for coordinated discovery and pretrial proceedings.
Each of the NEC lawsuits raise similar allegations, indicating that manufacturers of cow’s milk-based infant formula and human milk fortifier specifically marketing products for use by preterm newborns, without providing warnings to hospitals, doctors or families. However, as lawyers continue to investigate and file claims in the coming year, it is ultimately expected that several thousand lawsuits will be brought by families of infants diagnosed with NEC.
In November 2022, a group of 12 cases were selected for a NEC lawsuit bellwether pool, which will go through case specific discovery and prepared for a series of early trial dates expected to begin in 2024.
Although the outcome of these early bellwether trials will not have any binding impact on other claims, they are expected to have a substantial impact on any baby formula NEC settlements the manufacturers may offer to avoid the need for each individual case to be remanded back to U.S. District Courts nationwide for separate trial dates in the future.
Is Your Family Eligible For a Baby Formula Lawsuit?
Lawyers provide free consultations and claim evaluations to help families determine if financial compensation may be available through a baby formula settlement if a premature infant was diagnosed with necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC).
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