If you haven’t heard the news, you’re about to. I’m sure the Mommy-blogs will be buzzing in the morning about the terrible tragedy that occurred in Missouri, where 10-day-old Avery Cornett died from a bacterial infection. Avery was formula fed, and the family was using Enfamil Newborn which was purchased at their local Walmart. The authorities made it clear that the case is still under investigation; the bacterial infection could have been contracted from the water used to mix the formula (doubtful) or from the way the formula was handled (plausible, and this is not because of any fault of the parents; hardly anyone follows WHO protocol for formula feeding, because a. they are not informed about it and b. typically, it isn’t a problem) – not to mention some other non-formula-related exposure – and not necessarily the powder itself.
Not that these facts make it any less scary.
Look. There’s no doubt about it: it could turn out to be that the bacteria (a particularly dangerous type called Cronobacter sakazakii) was indeed in the powdered formula. This is even more gut-wrenching when you consider that the type of formula affected was one specifically marketed to newborns, who are most susceptible to bacterial infections.
Formula is a manufactured substance, and it is handled by humans in all stages of it’s “life”. This means it is prone to human error. There can be bug parts. There can be bacteria. It can happen.
These things also happen with other manufactured food substances, of course. It’s just that when a food is specifically designed for babies, you are dealing with a whole other can of worms. Sometimes literally…ahem, Similac….
I’ll be awaiting the verdict on whether or not the bacterium was in the powder or not; Enfamil claims that the batch (which has been recalled from all Walmart stores nationwide) was tested prior to its shipment to stores, but who knows. Ultimately, even if a tiny bit of the bacterium made its way into the powder, using extra-vigilant formula prep could reduce the risk of your baby getting sick. Bacteria has to grow and thrive; things like proper sterilization, using distilled or boiled/cooled water, and cleaning bottles, bottle brushes, nipples, etc extremely well can stunt that growth or murder the little buggers outright. This paper on Cronobacter sakazakii explains:
Though the contamination in infant formula has often been attributed to the dried powder, the origin could well be the environment in which the formula is prepared for feeding. Delays between reconstitution of the formula and the actual feeding may allow growth of the contaminants, particularly if the formula is kept warm. Naso-gastric feeding tubes may be left in place for long periods and initially low numbers of C. sakazakii in the formula could attach to feeding tube and reach levels capable of threatening infant health through biofilm growth on the internal bore of the tubes. As the biofilms grow, individual cells or lumps can slough off and re-enter the formula stream. The infant’s digestive tract is thus continuously inoculated with the bacteria. Infection is likely to be exacerbated by the weak immune system and lack of mature competing intestinal microflora in neonates.
For all the talk about the “risks” of formula, I’d say that this risk – the risk of contamination due to human error – is the only one most of us in the developed world truly should worry about. But please, for the love of all things, don’t let anyone berate you about this being yet another reason formula is dangerous, another reason we should all be breastfeeding. There can be risks to breastfeeding too, especially if you’re using women like us as a sample group. Women whose babies were starving due to insufficient milk; women who were withholding vital medications from themselves because they thought breastfeeding was more important than maternal health; women who suffer emotional trauma each time they attempt to bring a baby to their breast. These risks are small; most women who want to breastfeed will be able to do so without suffering any ill effects.
But most women will also be able to formula feed without facing the threat of bacterial contamination from powdered formula sold at Wal-Mart. We can’t make decisions based on worst-case scenarios. If we did, none of us would be traveling for the holidays, and if the Los Angeles freeways and the cost of my plane ticket to Chicago are any indication, this isn’t the case.
Think of how many millions of babies drink formula every day. Now think about the last time you heard about a formula-related death due to bacterial contamination. Just as it would be ridiculous to use the story about a woman breastfeeding woman smothering her baby to death on a plane (or in the hospital) as an argument for formula feeding, it would be equally stupid to co-opt this tragedy in the name of lactivism. The real attention should be placed on what we could do to safeguard formula manufacturing from these egregious errors, and more importantly, on Avery and his parents, who must be suffering unimaginable grief.