In 1867, a Swiss pharmacist named Henri Nestlé mixed together a liquid food from cow’s milk, wheat flour, and sugar for a neighbor’s baby who wouldn’t nurse.1, 2 This became the first infant formula, and it helped create an international food conglomerate that now sells ground and instant coffee, chocolate candy, L’Oréal cosmetics, Friskies and Alpo pet foods, Libby’s vegetables, and more than 50% of all infant formula sold worldwide.3, 4
In the industrialized world, bottle-feeding on formula became more popular after World War II for a variety of reasons. Formula feeding felt more "modern." There was a sense that science produced better things than nature. After all, nature produced disease, and science found antibiotics. Nature produced polio, and science was developing the polio vaccine. Nature produced war, and science had ended it. The growing affection for cleanliness also urged Americans to give up things as "messy" as breastfeeding. The baby boom contributed to the increased profits for makers of infant formulae.
In the 1960s, the drop in birth rate in the industrialized nations led to sagging sales of infant formula. This was noticed by manufacturers, who sought new markets in third world nations.5 At the time, there was little demand for infant formula in these markets, however a need can be created where none has previously existed. For example, wall-to-wall carpeting was invented by the inventor of the vacuum cleaner, who needed a floor covering that could not be taken out and beaten.
"By 1977, Nestlé had 81 plants in 27 non-industrialized countries and 728 sales centers in all parts of the world promoting its products. The non-industrialized world offered easy pickings for the multinationals. The number of mothers breastfeeding their babies in these countries began to decline dramatically during the 1960s, partly because of the rapid and drastic social changes taking place in the developing urban areas and partly because of the high pressure, sophisticated advertising and promotional strategies of the infant formula companies.6
In the 1970s, growing acceptance of bodily functions and the rising idea that "the personal is political" brought breastfeeding into the area of public discussion. Of primary concern was what women in third world countries were feeding their babies.7 There had been a marked jump in the rate of gastroenteritis and malnutrition among these babies relating to the improper use of infant formula and the associated feeding equipment, such as bottles and nipples.8 In 1977, an organized boycott was started against makers of formula, in particular against Nestlé.9
Since 1974, both clergy and lay groups had been asking the United Nations and the World Health Assembly to set standards for the making and marketing of infant formulae. In 1979, a joint conference—the Meeting on Infant and Young Child Feeding—was held by WHO and UNICEF to develop an "international code of marketing of infant formula and other related products used as breast-milk substitutes." In 1981, their recommendations were formalized as the WHO/UNICEF International Code of Marketing Breast-milk Substitutes. In 1984, Nestlé agreed to abide by the Code, and the protest was officially over.10
In the industrialized nations, there has been good compliance with the Code. It is rare to see billboard ads for baby formula. There are no Carnation- or Simulac-sponsored posters showing smiling infants on the walls in maternity wards. There are no "new mother" clubs. Formula is labeled in common languages (primarily English and Spanish in the U.S.), and the cans bear a label stating "Breast is Best."
But almost immediately, formula manufacturers started skirting the law whenever possible. For example, most manufacturers now have a "follow-up" formula designed for children beginning anywhere from three to six months old. They interpret the Code as not covering these products, because the products are not intended for infants. Because of similar designs in labeling—the follow-up formulae bear labels identical to the infant version except for slight modifications in logo or label color—advertising designed to promote the follow-up formula serve to advertise the infant formula as well.11 Similar intentions have been linked to the promotion of specialty formulae for lactose intolerant or low birth-weight babies. In 1986, Nestlé’s and Wyeth’s subsidiaries in the Philippines sought permission to distribute low birth-weight formulae for free. An internal memorandum, uncovered later, was distributed to retailers of Wyeth’s products in which it was explicitly claimed that mothers would use Wyeth’s infant formula after a few weeks on the free low birth-weight formula.12In developing nations, compliance with the code was even more spotty. As a result, in 1988, the boycott against Nestlé was reinstated.13 Twenty nations now have organized boycotts against Nestlé and its subsidiaries.14