RE: 10 Year Anniversary of the Right to Food Guidelines

George Kent University of Hawaii (Emeritus), United States of America


In this discussion, Theme 3, on The Future, asks, “What are the major challenges and ways ahead for the full realization of the right to adequate food at the local, national, regional and global levels?” I suggest that the right to food of infants and young children should be recognized as an important part of the agenda, especially because of new challenges resulting from the globalization of the baby food industry.

The nutrition risks faced by children are very high. A recent report in The Lancet said that in 2011, undernutrition caused more than 3 million child deaths annually. The risks are highest in low-income countries, but they are serious in all countries. One study estimated that if most US infants were breastfed optimally, more than 900 early deaths would be prevented. The evidence indicates that there is significant mortality and morbidity of children associated with malnutrition in all countries.

The malnutrition that shows up as overweight has been increasing at an alarming rate in many populations, usually linked to increased consumption of processed foods. The tendency toward being overweight often begins in childhood. As many people’s first processed food, infant formula may be a significant factor leading to overweight in childhood and throughout the lifespan.

Many countries categorized as poor are now described as “emerging economies”, with a substantial middle class. These people have money to spend, and therefore attract sellers of many different kinds of goods, from both inside and outside the country. Baby food is high on the list of goods promoted to this segment of the population. In much of the world, the production of processed baby food is being taken over by outside interests. The manufacture and marketing of baby food is globalizing rapidly.

Some countries give a great deal of attention to the safety of infant formula, but do little to ensure its nutritional adequacy. To illustrate, until now, in the United States,  manufacturers have not been required to demonstrate that formula supports normal physical growth in the infant. They are not required to show that infant formula is nutritionally adequate in the sense of ensuring intellectual development, vision, and immune system development comparable to that obtained with breastfeeding.

For new infant formulas that are marketed, the standards in the U.S. are allowed to be different for formulas that are intended for export, rather than for domestic consumption. It is not clear why manufacturers should be permitted to use different standards for formulas that are exported. There is a need to clarify the responsibilities of national governments and food manufacturers with regard to consumers beyond their national jurisdictions.

Many countries have little capacity to ensure the safety and nutritional adequacy of formula used by their infants and young children. With the increasing globalization of the formula market through trade and joint ventures, there is a need for attention from the global level.

In many countries there are serious commitments to support breastfeeding. However, there is intense international promotion of baby foods pushing in the opposite direction. According to one report, US$41 billion was spent on milk formula globally in 2013. That figure is expected to grow as a result of vigorous promotion by the manufactuerers..

Some people might have thought that with the adoption of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes in 1981, the need for regulation at the global level was met. However, regulation needs to be strengthened in several ways:

  • It needs to be made clear that the Code applies to all countries, not just low-income countries.
  • The Code needs to be updated to recognize that not only manufacturers but also some governments promote the use of infant formula in a way that is contrary to the principles set out in the Code.
  • There is a need to clarify and strengthen the application of the Code in international trade and other international relations.
  • The Code is sometimes viewed as applying only to infant formula, so its applicability to other breast-milk substitutes needs to be clarified.
  • The Code should be adapted and placed into the international human rights framework.

Many exaggerated claims are made about baby foods. There is a need to ensure that new parents and health workers are provided fair, evidence-based, user-friendly information that would help them make well-informed choices about how their children should be fed.

The baby food industry is being globalized at an unprecedented pace. There is a need for global monitoring and regulation of the baby food industry. The food rights of infants and children should be clearly articulated.  This could be done through a new Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child that focuses on children’s nutrition, a new General Comment on the topic, or new right to food guidelines that focus specifically on infants and young children. While other elements of food systems might be controlled locally, the baby food industry needs global governance to ensure the food security of infants and young children everywhere.