It could be a throw-away, feel-good bullet point in a document no one takes seriously. But it could also severely handcuff U.S. dairy exporters and harm children around the world.

At issue is a World Health Organization proposal written in January that seeks to prohibit the promotion of milk and milk products to children under the age of three. In April, The National Milk Producers Federation (representing dairy farmers) and the International Dairy Foods Association (representing dairy processors) urged members of Congress to insist upon a more thorough analysis of the proposal.

WHO wrote a guidance document titled “Ending Inappropriate Marketing of Foods for Infants and Young Children.”  According to a joint NMPF/IDFA press release, WHO seeks “to discourage parents from feeding toddlers milk and certain dairy products.”

“The WHO guidance document is a de facto criticism of all milk consumption by toddlers,” said Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of NMPF.  “This flies in the face of all credible, international nutrition research, and would confuse consumers across the globe.”

“The WHO guidance should be focusing on how to encourage the serving of nutrient-dense foods to provide young children and toddlers with a nutritious basis for meals and snacks,” said Connie Tipton, IDFA president and CEO. “It should not restrict the flow of important information regarding the nutritional benefits of dairy foods for young children to parents, caregivers and healthcare providers.”

The report certainly is curious, especially in light of other WHO documents, like Fact Sheet No. 342, which notes “Every infant and child has the right to good nutrition, according to the Convention on the Rights of the Child” and “Undernutrition is associated with 45% of child deaths” and “Few children receive nutritionally adequate safe complementary foods.”

The groups ask Congress to insist that the WHO conduct “a much more thorough analysis of the scientific basis for and potential consequences of this proposal before the WHO pushes forward with further action in this area. Until that type of careful scrutiny and revision takes place, we urge the U.S. to insist on the importance of placing this proposal on hold.”

Negative effects on children

If the guidance were adopted, they say it could have negative health effects on children worldwide. There is plenty of scientific evidence proving that dairy plays a significant and positive role in children’s diets. Here in the United States, we can point to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the inclusion of dairy foods in programs such as the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children.

“This is of great concern to the U.S. dairy industry because the policies proposed contradict decades of federal nutrition policy, which recognizes dairy foods as safe, nutrient-rich foods to be encouraged for growing children under three years of age,” the letter argued.

In a February letter to Assistant Secretary for Global Affairs Jimmy Kolker of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Mulhern pointed out the economic impacts of WHO’s recommendation against feeding dairy products to children under the age of three.

“The U.S. exported $5 billion worth of dairy products last year,” including cheese, yogurt, infant formula, whey, lactose and milk powder, Mulhern wrote. “U.S. dairy exports account for approximately one day’s worth of milk production each week, making those sales critical elements in supporting American dairy farm families.”

Dairy exports, world trade

In separate trade news in April, a bi-partisan group of 26 U.S. senators asked U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to consider key dairy issues in any free trade agreement with the European Union. One of those key issues is the restrictive use of certain words to describe cheeses. These are known as geographical indications (GI, for short). The EU argues that Parmesan, feta and Asiago can only be used to describe cheeses produced in Italy and Greece. American cheesemakers could not use these names in the United States or in export markets. IDFA’s Tipton rightly noted that “names like feta and Parmesan belong to everyone, not just a small group of producers in Europe.”

Meanwhile, members of the U.S. House of Representatives in April weighed in on the need to address dairy interests in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. They asked in a letter to Froman and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to:

  • Make sure that Canada implements its TPP commitments and does not alter existing avenues for U.S. market access.
  • Make sure that U.S. trading partners, particularly major markets such as Japan, adhere to the intent of the TPP agreement’s geographical indication commitments.
  • Establish procedures to ensure compliance with the terms of the market access that the U.S. will provide to TPP trading partners.

The U.S. dairy industry – processors and producers alike – needs international trade for its long-term health. But it cannot survive if trading partners do not live up to agreements, if partners (like the EU) write restrictive GI rules and UN agencies issue poorly worded proposals.