As I explain in a previous blog, I was shocked to discover that Martek, a company that harvests DHA from microbes found in soil bacteria, was sponsoring the upcoming International Confederation of Midwives conference in Glasgow next month. Martek are 'silver sponsors' at the event.
You might wonder why this is such a big deal? Who are Martek exactly?
Martek are the company that single-handedly supply all the DHA 'ingredients' to baby formula.
Is this is big deal? Seriously?
Yes, seriously, it is. It is serious on two main counts.
One, midwife organisations should be supporting breastfeeding, and taking money from a company that makes millions from selling its product to engineer formula to make it more like breastmilk is completely unethical. Not only does this directly undermine breastfeeding and breastmilk, it allows everyone to hike up their prices for formula as they have the 'best' ingredients. In fact, on the web page I've just linked to Martek straight out speak about this by stating:
"...as the market has shown, they are willing to pay a premium to provide the best nutrition for their children."
This is the company sponsoring the conference. Sponsoring it, I might add, by money made from selling at a 'premium' to parents, worried about doing the best for their children. And knowingly, and openly, exploiting that in their approach to marketing and promotion. This is completely and utterly unacceptable. Taking money from parents at one end of the equation, and handing it out to gain credence and publicity at a midwives' conference? Obscene. Utterly obscene.
But it gets worse. This point on its own is bad enough - engineering products to 'fake' breastmilk, selling it on at a high premium to worried parents... that's one thing, but selling on a product with no proven efficiency, but with serious concerns on its effects on infants... that's just totally off the scale.
And that's what Martek does. It promotes its DHA/ARA supplements as being the same ingredients found naturally in breastmilk, and therefore aiding normal brain, nerve and eye growth in babies, exactly as breastmilk does. Ingredients traditionally absent from formula, and therefore one reason why formula fed infants do not achieve the same development in these areas than if they were breastfed. But the two products are not the same. The Martek product is a 'novel' product, made under laboratory conditions, and harvests long chain polyunsaturated fatty acids from bacteria, fungus and algae. There have been no independent clinical trials on the effects of this 'novel' product in the infant gut, or on how it might, or might not, be utilised by the infant.
But what study after study after study has found, is that there has been no increase in these functions in babies fed the 'novel' formula versus the old formula. There have been some suggestions of a benefit in pre-term babies, but breastmilk would simply be better for preemies anyway, and there is no understanding yet of appropriate doses and how some studies show no increase and others show some. But in the case of buying it off the shelf and feeding it to your baby as day to day food - the results are perfectly clear: it gives no added benefits in growth in these areas.
In other words: it doesn't work. In the words of the researchers:
"Routine supplementation of milk formula with LCPUFA to improve the physical, neurodevelopmental or visual outcomes of infants born at term can not be recommended based on the current evidence." Simmer et al PMID: 18253974
So much for the 'premium' that parents are paying for, huh?
It gets worse, of course. For whilst there is no evidence that adding these 'novel' oils to formula helps development, there is a growing body of data that suggests it causes problems for infants. Vomiting, gastric reflux, extreme constipation, extreme diarrhoea, all of the above, are symptoms being linked again and again to the use of formula containing the 'novel' oils. Babies are being hospitalised, taken off the 'new' formula, put on the old one, and symptoms disappear. In many cases, when the new formula is introduced again, the symptoms return.
Parents in the USA have been reporting these incidents to the Food and Drug Administration, in an attempt to get warning labels put onto the formula tins on the shelf. Well, we know how good formula companies are at appropriate labeling, don't we? Here are some of the cases reported to the FDA:
Report #: 61307
“Her baby was fed this Enfamil Lipil formula for the first 3 weeks of his life and was constantly having gas and diarrhea from it, until he was taken off this formula by his pediatrician after the child was taken to the hospital ER by the parents, while having a severe bout of gas and diarrhea. Child was given regular Enfamil with Iron and has been on it ever since without any problems.”
Report #: 64191
“Healthy term newborn receiving formula supplementation – mother with history of breast reduction surgery – in hospital. Mother reported large amounts of emesis (vomiting) with Lipil, which resolved when switched to “original” Enfamil. Subsequently she was unable to obtain more “original” Enfamil – hospital supply not repleted by formula company. Baby again vomiting today with resumption of Lipil. Hospital staff in process of searching for formula without Formulaid [DHA and ARA] at present.”
Report #: 72285
“My son cannot tolerate the new infant formulas with DHA/ARA additives, Similac Advance, Enfamil Lipil, Goodstart with DHA/ARA – every time he has tried a DHA/ARA formula he gets extremely gassy, fussy and has terrible gas pains. He does do better on the Similac Advance, which has less DHA/ARA than the other products. I can’t find plain Similac in my local store, as they only carry the DHA/ARA formulas. Why did the FDA allow the formula companies to produce these formulas without long term testing???”
Why indeed. The same question can be asked in the UK...
For those of you who which to understand more about the issues on how these 'novel' oils are made, what effect they have on human babies, the legal battle now ensuing in the USA to have warning labels put on formula cans etc.. I cannot recommend the following report enough:
Replacing Mother—Imitating Human Breast Milk in the Laboratory, details research questioning the alleged benefits of adding “novel” omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids, produced in laboratories and extracted from algae and fungus, into infant formulas. The report presents disturbing research indicating that the new additives placed in infant formula are seriously endangering the health of some formula-fed newborns and toddlers. Aggressive marketing campaigns by some infant formula manufacturers appear to have encouraged new mothers to give up nursing and switch to use of the questionable infant formula products."
And it is definitely a report that those involved in brokering and accepting Martek money - parents' money - for the midwives' conference, should read.
On that, I really wish I could tell you some good news about the conference organisers. When I was informed that Martek was sponsoring the conference, I emailed the ICM direct, and asked if it was they, or the Royal College of Midwives who brokered the deal? The RCM are hosting the conference on behalf of the ICM, as it's being held in the UK. A full working week later, I've not even had an acknowledgement of my request for information, never mind a response. With the conference opening on June 1st, I felt I had no option midweek but to them contact the RCM and ask them is they had brokered the sponsorship deal. No answer has been forthcoming from them either.
Now, the ICM email went to their 'info' eddress - so someone will have seen it. The RCM one went to a named person, and although I'd not had an "out of office" response, it's conceivable that the message hasn't been read as they could be away. So I will email their 'info' with the same request, tonight.
I also asked both organisations to let me know who monitors the The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes issues within their orgs. Given the issues of code breakers at the recent RCM organised event, this is a serious issue for both orgs. Will there be code breakers in the halls at Glasgow? Again, I've had no response at all, never mind on this separate point.
Which is a bit silly. For I alerted both organisations to the fact that some of the outraged responses I'd had after mentioning this in my blog, had been from some mothers wanting to organise a demo-protest outside the conference next week! You'd think that after alerting them to this, and asking for more info so we could understand the issues fully, and know where, why and how the sponsorship had come about... they'd jump at the chance to defuse the situation by responding quickly. After all, maybe they were unaware of Martek's role in manufacturing formula components that made artificial ingredients "naturally found in breast milk".
So, that's the situation. That's who will be sponsoring next week's shindig. And midwives from all over the world, will be in attendance. I hope someone speaks up at the conference, and asks for an explanation of all this. I've had quite a few furious midwives in touch, and I'm sure some of the ire will last past the acceptance speech and the 'well done' clappy clap claps.
I will keep trying to get through to both ICM and RCM, and will let you know if I get a response. If you want to try yourself, and let them know it's not just me annoyed about this - you can contact ICM here, and RCM here.
Depressing that we have to do this, with the very people that we trust most to keep our babies safe.