Update 1: (Belatedly) Sharing Insights from the Infant Formula Industry

Apologies for the delayed posting of my first blog! Since I’m both researching and interning in Washington D.C. this summer, I’m dynamically learning about time management, work-based harmony, and task completion. This blog post details the research I conducted in the first three weeks of May. Since my research process is segmented around my internship, blog posts to come will feature more updates that explore my methods of staying engaged with research while working. Blog posts at the end of the summer will outline the synthesis and final research processes.

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While I’ve been conducting research on the infant formula industry with Professor Quark for the last 2 years, my Monroe project is an opportunity to independently define some research questions on the industry. Our previous research focused heavily on the development of and accountability for infant formula quality standards, as well as the market forces, industry players, and consumer groups that play into the debate. I hope to use my Monroe project to look beyond quality standard development to explore the intersection of marketing/labeling standards and justice claims. Since infant formula is a consumer good targeted at a very vulnerable population, it is imperative that all formula products on the market are safe, reliable and properly regulated for all consumers.

To start off my project, I wanted dedicated a few weeks to taking a deeper dive into the infant formula industry than I ever had before. I scoured academic databases, peer-reviewed journals, library shelves, and market forecasts to gather as broad of a collection of materials as possible. It is my hope that exploring as much research as possible in this early stage will allow me to simultaneously allow me to conceptualize the industry and identify pieces to study in more depth. In this preliminary stage, I am primarily organizing my findings into a two rough documents: 1) a dynamic and expansive timeline that outlines the development and maturation of the industry 2) a rough outline based off my research questions/areas of overall focus. This rough structure allows me to have some organization for my findings, without jumping to early conclusions or generalizing my findings.

As a result of this comprehensive preliminary research process, my focus has shifted slightly. While I’ve always found the infant formula industry to be interesting, my deeper research is illuminating just how dynamic, volatile, and at times, shocking the industry can be. I’ve found a lot of information about how marketing and labeling standards have developed for infant formula, as well as for other “special” consumer goods. However, I’ve also started to explore the unique industry interests, power struggles, and justice issues that can influence sales, promotion, standards, and regulations in the infant formula industry. The more I study the industry, the more I realize how much it is the perfect case study through which to explore global standard setting and equity when pursuing new markets.

Consequently, I now hope to not only explore the development of marketing and labeling standards for infant formula, but also, focus on the violations in developing and emerging economies by transnational companies that lead to greater enforcement and more stringent standards. The inequities that can arise with improper marketing and labeling are astounding and make a strong case for the integration of equity and justice into standard setting and global trade. Through my preliminary research, I discovered a number of interesting case studies throughout the globe that really highlight the power of transnational firms and the influence of labeling and marketing on public health and the environment. Therefore, I hope to focus my next round of literary review and in-depth research on how infant formula products are marketed and regulated in different economies around the world. Moreover, I’ve found a decent amount of information regarding the public health issues that can arise from incorrect formula marketing/promotion. However, I want to find more research detailing the negative impact infant formula can have on the environment. I hope to find research that considers the impact infant formula can have on water resources, as well as, the agricultural impacts of producing vast quantities of infant formula. It is my hope that such research will illuminate the broader economic, social, and environmental impacts of the infant formula industry. An understanding of such impacts will allow  me to better conceptualize and analyze what role standards and regulation can have on furthering justice and protecting consumer and environmental health.

Comments

  1. jpmalanson says:

    Hello, this is a very interesting topic and I’m impressed that you’re studying all these different aspects of the industry from marketing standards to its effects on the environment. I found especially interesting your comment that transnational organizations may act differently, and exploitatively, in emerging economies. I assume in a country like America that the industry is active in lobbying and campaign contributions. In the developing world do they engage in activities like bribery and other forms of political corruption to get their way, do they simply ignore regulations that the government is unable to enforce or do they do something else altogether? I’ll be interested to see if you find more information about the infant formula industry’s influence and what these countries and perhaps the international community can do to curb exploitative actions. I’m also curious as to how your research ties into debates over trade policy. In trying to integrate equity and justice into global trade do you think that would impede the negotiation of trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership? Do you know if the infant formula industry has been involved at all in supporting or opposing these deals? I’ll be interested to read your further findings about the infant formula industry’s activities.

  2. Thank you so much for such a thoughtful comment, I appreciate your insights!

    Studying the history of the infant formula industry from the 1920s to present day has been a fantastic way to explore industry dynamics and marketing tactics have changed over time. In the 1970s and 1980s, marketing campaigns used by infant formula companies exploited low-income populations in developing nations as many formula brands asserted the health benefits of infant formula without noting the benefits of traditional breastmilk and the dangers of consuming formula made with unsanitary water. Given the environmental conditions, low literacy rates, social structure, and changes of the labor force in the developing world, mothers were spending large shares of limited incomes on infant formula products, without being aware of the risks. Since consumer groups were less active in these regions, it was difficult to raise awareness of the deception of the labels and messages on infant formula products. In the end, it proved to be international efforts and boycotts in more developed countries, such as the US, that raised awareness of the issue and lead to changes in the international marketing and labeling standards.

    To answer your second point, I think the integration of equity and justice into global trade agreements would go far to strengthen compliance, enforcement, and national implementation of global accords. By giving voice to emerging economies and smaller nations, more equitable and healthy outcomes will be evident around the globe. As early childhood nutrition is an important foundation for healthy outcomes and futures success, ensuring that quality and safe products are available for all children is imperative for global progress. As I continue to delve into research into the more present history of infant formula, I am considering how the infant formula industry and other relevant stakeholders influenced TTP and TTIP – so I’ll keep you updated on my results!

    Thank you again for the feedback, I appreciated your insights!