The Politics of Mother’s Milk


You may have heard the old adage that “money is the mother’s milk of politics,” but money also has a lot to do with the politics of mother’s milk.

Last week Rep. Michele Bachmann, R., Minn., criticized Michelle Obama for announcing that she would work to encourage breastfeeding as part of her campaign against childhood obesity, accusing the First Lady of encouraging a “new definition” of a “nanny state.”

What was missing from the stories that followed, however, was that the powerful infant formula industry has tremendous influence in Washington, with PACs, employees and their family members of the three biggest producers donating $1 million to federal candidates and party committees in the 2010 election cycle and the companies themselves disclosing lobbying spending of $9 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

That influence pays dividends. Late last year, the industry’s high powered lobbyists managed to keep a provision out of the child nutrition bill that would have required new additives to infant formula to undergo scientific review to determine whether they are actually beneficial to babies.

Taxpayers had a stake in the proposal—the federal government is the biggest national purchaser of infant formula through the federal Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program, which provides it to low-income women who prefer to formula feed their babies. While the industry offers rebates to state governments that provide the formula, the program still costs taxpayers some $850 million a year.

A recent study by the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which operates the WIC program, pointed out that recent rising costs in the program were partly because the cost of formula has gone up—the estimate is $91 million—largely because manufacturers have started including additives such as the fatty acides docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) and arachidonic acid (ARA). As Ruth Marcus reported for the Washington Post last July, when Congress reauthorized WIC in 2004, not long after infant formula manufacturers started including these ingredients in formula, language was inserted telling states that when they solicited bids for infant formula, they could not require manufacturers to include or omit specific ingredients.

The industry says that these ingredients mimic ingredients naturally found in breast milk and that they help enhance brain development in infants. However, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) notes that the scientific evidence is mixed. Because infant formula is regulated as a food, rather than a drug, the FDA is charged with ensuring that such additives are safe (the agency says DHA and ARA are) but not whether they actually work.

Last year, both the House and Senate versions  of the child nutrition bill that passed out of committee contained different provisions that would have enhanced the USDA’s power to consider science on whether new additives or “functional ingredients”—are beneficial for babies. (While DHA and ARA are in most infant formulas now, and are unlikely to be removed, manufacturers continue to find and add new ingredients to their products.) This provision was championed by such groups as the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities and the California WIC Association.

Infant formula and additives manufacturers called on lobbyists to help out. For example, Martek Biosciences, a Maryland-based additives manufacturer, reported spending $600,000 in 2010 to hire a dozen lobbyists at firms such as Patton Boggs and McDermott, Will and Emery. Company executives have also contributed $31,280 to federal candidates and parties in the 2010 election cycle, giving to both Democrats and Republicans.

One of the hired lobbyists, Lanny Davis, a former Clinton Administration official, sent around an email to Capitol Hill offices claiming that the legislation was being pushed by “lactivists” who want to force women to continue breastfeeding, the New York Times reported last December.

Meanwhile, the three giant infant formula manufacturers that supply 90 percent of infant formula in the United States also had a stable of lobbyists at their disposal and a history of ample campaign contributions. Abbott Laboratories reported spending $5 million lobbying in 2010; Nestle, $3.8 million; and Mead Johnson Nutritionals, $185,000. The three companies together contributed $1 million in the 2010 cycle to candidates and party committees.

In the end, Congress dropped the provision before passing the child nutrition bill on December 13. It wasn’t the first time that the infant formula industry had pulled its weight in Congress—and it likely won’t be the last.

Correction: Due to an error at, an earlier version of this post misreported that Mead Johnson Nutritional is a subsidiary of Bristol-Myers Squibb. Bristol-Myers Squibb spun off the company in 2009. The lobbying and campaign finance numbers in this post have been corrected, and is also correcting its data. In addition, higher infant formula costs due to functional additives is partly, not largely, the driver of increased costs for the WIC program.