15. Gerber Uses the WTO to Suppress Laws that Promote Breastfeeding

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Environment and Health Weekly, November 18, 1999
Title: Corporate Rights vs. Human Need
Author: Peter Montague

Multinational Monitor, September, 2,000
Title: Milking Profits in Pakistan
Author: Muddassir Rizvi

Faculty Evaluators: Suzanne Toczyski, Ph.D., Linda Novack, Ph.D.
Student Researchers: Deanna Battaglia, Nathalie Manneville

Gerber Baby Foods Corporation has used the World Trade Organization (WTO) to suppress a Guatemalan law that encouraged mothers to breast-feed their children.

For many years, the potential market for baby food corporations has deteriorated because of low birth rates in developing countries. In order to create demand for their products, Gerber Baby Foods has aggressively sought to expand their market in Third World countries, particularly Guatemala.

Under WTO rules, corporate intellectual property rights have higher priority than human health. Small, poor countries can be intimidated by transnational corporations into opening their markets to foreign corporations, and their governments cannot invoke their own domestic laws as a precondition of doing business. In effect, the WTO has given corporations a powerful new way to challenge the laws of any federal, state, or municipal government.

In 1983, the government of Guatemala passed a law and regulations with the goal to inspire new mothers to breastfeed their infants, and to fully understand the harm that could be done to their baby if they used breast-milk substitutes. The Guatemalan law prohibited the use of labels that associated infant formula with a healthy, chubby baby similar to those found on all Gerber packages. Manufacturers were prohibited from sending out free samples of their products because this encouraged mothers to stop breastfeeding, and to become customers. The law required packaging labels to carry a statement that breastfeeding is nutritionally superior. The law also restricted baby food manufacturers from targeting young mothers in the hospital. All of these regulations went into effect in 1988, and all other domestic and foreign manufacturers of baby foods, with one exception, Gerber, came into compliance. Gerber, the U.S baby food manufacturer objected to Guatemala’s law. Gerber refused to remove its trademark picture of a smiling chubby baby from its product labels. Gerber also refused to add a phrase to the labels saying that breast milk is superior. Although the Guatemalan Ministry of Health made numerous attempts to negotiate with Gerber, the company reportedly continued to market its infant formulas and to give free samples to women and children.

In November 1993 Gerber lost its appeal but opened up a new line of attack on Guatemala stating that the law was a “expropriation of Gerber’s trademark.” In 1995, when the World Trade Organization came into being, Gerber dropped its claim regarding expropriation and began to challenge Guatemala before a WTO tribunal. Guatemala realized they were in battle with an immense power. The government changed its law to concede to Gerber’s marketing practices.

Heavy marketing by the baby food industry has contributed to a drop in breastfeeding rates in both the United States and Third World nations. Advertisers intend to convince women that breastfeeding their babies isn’t modern, and that bottle-feeding is healthier. The premise of such advertising is medically false. Breastfeeding provides infants with significant immunity to disease, as well as creating an emotional bond between mother and child.

Baby formula leads to 1.5 million infant deaths each year in Third World countries, as mothers often unwittingly prepare the formula with contaminated water, causing fatal diarrhea. According to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICF) only 44 percent of women in Third World countries currently breast-feed.

Update by Peter Montague

During the last quarter of the 20th century, the industrialized world was swept by a resurgence of “free trade” ideology that had its roots in late19th century England. In his novels, Charles Dickens cataloged the frightful inequalities and widespread misery that free trade brought to the people of England, but, unfortunately, the modern resurgence of free trade has no Charles Dickens telling its story. Nevertheless, the inequalities and misery are spreading around the globe, largely unreported by the corporatized media. The main thrust of modern free trade ideology is to weaken national governments and give freedom to transnational corporations to do as they please. As a result, social safety nets, even in the advanced countries of northern Europe, are being dismantled. The forms of democratic self-governance at national, state, and local levels are losing substance as power shifts to the private sector. This long-term shift away from democracy, away from governmental control of corporate behavior, is the sweeping backdrop against which history is unfolding in our time. My story merely described a few details of this backdrop.

Of course the widely reported “Battle of Seattle” coincided with the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in late November 1999. For the first time since the Vietnam War, churches, labor unions, environmentalists, democracy activists, and students joined forces to assert their opposition, this time to the corporate agenda called “globalized free trade.” Thus for the first time the battle lines were drawn: those favoring popular control of governments (and of democratically set standards for labor and environment) versus those favoring corporate control of such matters. As a result of the Battle of Seattle, a worldwide network of NGOs (non-governmental organizations) has developed, using the Internet for communication, aiming to reassert democratic controls over corporations, economies, and standards affecting workers and the environment. A titanic struggle is thus under way worldwide-the forces of popular democracy vs. the forces of corporate control, again largely unreported in the corporatized media.

The mainstream media largely ignored this story. As Ben Bagdikian has documented in the sixth edition of Media Monopoly (Boston: Beacon Press, 2000), the mainstream press in the U.S. is now controlled by just six corporations. It should come as no surprise to learn that these six corporations report very little about the most important story of our time-free trade ideology undermining the role and power of national and subnational governments worldwide, giving corporations free rein to do as they please.

The organization Public Citizen, in Washington, D.C., has an excellent web site describing its Global Trade Watch campaign (and some of the best free trade publications available anywhere); Go tohttp://www.citizen.org/pctrade/tradehome.html

Many good listservs about globalization and free trade are also available free from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) at <

Peter Montague: peter@rachel.org