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July 11, 2018

Trump admin pushes back against NYT report on international breastfeeding resolution

Daily Briefing

    The Trump administration this week pushed back against a news report that the United States during a United Nations-affiliated World Health Assembly meeting this spring threatened trade sanctions to "water down" a resolution to promote breastfeeding, NPR reports.

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    The New York Times earlier this week reported on the events at the spring meeting. 

    According to the Times, at the meeting in Geneva this May, Ecuador delegates sought to put forth a measure stating that a mother's milk is the healthiest for newborn babies and that countries should seek to curb inaccurate or misleading advertising of breastmilk substitutes. The position is based on decades of research, according to the Times.

    Elizabeth Zehner, the director for Helen Keller International's Assessment & Research on Child Feeding project who attended the meeting, said the measure "was pretty straightforward, it wasn't a real policy reach," because it "was really just reaffirming policies that are already in place and calling on countries to implement them," NPR reports.

    However, the Times reported that U.S. delegates sought to remove language that directed governments to "protect, promote, and support breastfeeding" and a passage that urges policymakers to curb promotion of food products that many experts have said can be harmful to young children, according to the Times.

    The United States' proposed changes were rejected, the Times reported. Diplomats and government officials who took part in the discussions, but asked to remain anonymous, told the Times that the United States then threatened to take "punishing trade measures" and remove key military aid from Ecuador. Ecuador dropped its plan to introduce the resolution.

    Ultimately, Russia introduced the measure and it passed.

    President Trump, state department official respond to claims

    The Trump administration this week disputed the Times claims that it opposed efforts to promote breastfeeding and denied that it threatened trade sanctions against Ecuador, NPR reports.

    President Trump in a tweet on Monday said the United States had opposed the measure because it contained language that called for limits on the promotion of breastmilk substitutes.                                              

    Trump in his tweet wrote, "The U.S. strongly supports breast feeding but we don't believe women should be denied access to formula. Many women need this option because of malnutrition and poverty."

    Caitlin Oakley, an HHS spokesperson, told the Associated Press it is "patently false" to depict the United States' position as "anti-breastfeeding." Oakley said, "The issues being debated, were not about whether one supports breastfeeding. The United States was fighting to protect women's abilities to make the best choices for the nutrition of their babies. Many women are not able to breastfeed for a variety of reasons, these women should not be stigmatized; they should be equally supported with information and access to alternatives for the health of themselves and their babies."

    In addition, an official from the U.S. State Department told NPR the United States did not threaten to place trade sanctions on Ecuador over the resolution. The State Department official said, "[M]edia reports suggesting the United States threatened a partner nation related to a World Health Assembly resolution are false."

    The World Health Organization (WHO) declined to comment, saying it could not discuss exchanges between delegations, NPR reports. NPR reported that it was unable to "independently confirm that the U.S. threatened Ecuador or any other country over this resolution."


    The Times defended its coverage, responding to Trump with a tweet that said, "Our report is accurate."

    Separately, Lucy Sullivan, the executive director of 1,000 Days, a non-profit that promotes nutrition for children and women, said she did not agree that the measure's original text would have restricted access to breastfeeding substitutes such as formula. Sullivan said, "The existence of infant formula is not in question here." She continued, "Neither is the availability of infant formula. What is in question here is the way that these products are promoted and pushed and marketed by these companies and how these companies are interfering in public health policy."

    According to Sullivan, representatives of some corporate interests had spoken out against the original text of the measure at a listening session hosted by HHS (Kennedy, NPR, 7/10; AP/New York Times, 7/9).

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