Breastfeeding, first-food systems and corporate power: a case study on the market and political practices of the transnational baby food industry and public health resistance in the Philippines

Global Health. 2021 Oct 26;17(1):125. doi: 10.1186/s12992-021-00774-5.


Background: The aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes (BMS) reduces breastfeeding, and harms child and maternal health globally. Yet forty years after the World Health Assembly adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (The Code), many countries are still to fully implement its provisions into national law. Furthermore, despite The Code, commercial milk formula (CMF) markets have markedly expanded. In this paper, we adopt the Philippines as a case study to understand the battle for national Code implementation. In particular, we investigate the market and political strategies used by the baby food industry to shape the country's 'first-food system', and in doing so, promote and sustain CMF consumption. We further investigate how breastfeeding coalitions and advocates have resisted these strategies, and generated political commitment for a world-leading breastfeeding policy framework and protection law (the 'Milk Code'). We used a case study design and process tracing method, drawing from documentary and interview data.

Results: The decline in breastfeeding in the Philippines in the mid-twentieth Century associated with intensive BMS marketing via health systems and consumer advertising. As regulations tightened, the industry more aggressively promoted CMFs for older infants and young children, thereby 'marketing around' the Milk Code. It established front groups to implement political strategies intended to weaken the country's breastfeeding policy framework while also fostering a favourable image. This included lobbying government officials and international organizations, emphasising its economic importance and threats to foreign investment and trade, direct litigation against the government, messaging that framed marketing in terms of women's choice and empowerment, and forging partnerships. A resurgence in breastfeeding from the mid-1980s onwards reflected strengthening political commitment for a national breastfeeding policy framework and Milk Code, resulting in-turn, from collective actions by breastfeeding coalitions, advocates and mothers.

Conclusion: The Philippines illustrates the continuing battle for worldwide Code implementation, and in particular, how the baby food industry uses and adapts its market and political practices to promote and sustain CMF markets. Our results demonstrate that this industry's political practices require much greater scrutiny. Furthermore, that mobilizing breastfeeding coalitions, advocacy groups and mothers is crucial to continually strengthen and protect national breastfeeding policy frameworks and Code implementation.

Keywords: Breast milk substitutes; Breastfeeding; Commercial determinants of health; Infant formula; Political economy.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Breast Feeding*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Food Industry
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Marketing
  • Milk Substitutes*
  • Philippines
  • Public Health