The latest infant formula scandal

Opinion by Lisa Amir

Five years ago I thought the scandal over melamine in infant formula in China would open people's eyes to the risks we take by giving newborn infants a human-made product. 

Smiling baby - image credit Gary GarciaHowever, the prevailing attitude in Australia seemed to be complacency: there’s nothing wrong with infant formula here.

Now, the shocking news is that infant formula produced in New Zealand has been contaminated with a potentially deadly bacteria.

The bacterium Clostridium botulinum can produce a toxin, botulinum (yes, that's Botox) which paralyses muscles, starting at the face and moving to the respiratory muscles.

Suspected contamination of food with botulinum is a medical emergency. Infants are particularly at risk if they ingest the botulinum toxin. Medical treatment, including assistance with breathing, is usually successful, but recovery may take weeks.

Fonterra, the giant New Zealand dairy company, have announced that five batches of their Karicare formula have been contaminated with Clostridium botulinum. They are recalling the affected batches, some of which have been transported and stored in Australia.

The same company announced contamination of their infant formula with fertiliser earlier this year. In 2011, Abbott Nutrition recalled Similac infant formula due to contamination with beetles and beetle larvae in the US.

The list goes on, but it is clear that infant formula is not a medical grade product – it is just a manufactured food, with all the risks of large-scale production.

Yet infant formula companies proudly advertise their products in order to increase their market share. They get around the current weak regulations by advertising so-called toddler milks in magazines and on television. Parents see the commercials as promotion for infant formula.

The real competition – breast milk – doesn't enjoy advertising campaigns or heavy promotion.

In August 2007, the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Health and Ageing published the ‘Best Start’ report on the inquiry into the health benefits of breastfeeding. One of the recommendations was for the Department of Health and Ageing to adopt the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

However, this has not happened, and a recent report has recommended no change to current marketing regulations.

It is time for the Australian government to do more to promote breastfeeding. New mothers need to know that they can breastfeed in public without fearing a backlash. More support is needed for new mothers in the community and in workplaces. The 22 recommendations in the 'Best Start' report would be a good way to start!

Associate Professor Lisa Amir is Principal Research Fellow at the Mother and Child Health Research Centre.