Conflict of Interest: The connections between ABC News, Dr. Beard, & Nestle
As many of you already know, a recent Harvard study by Bartick and Reinhold, showed the cost savings and lives saved if babies were breastfed exclusively for 6 months. Especially in this era of health care reform, it’s tremendously important that breastfeeding (which doesn’t cost any money) could actually save the US health care system $13 billion dollars per year!
However, as with many studies, especially those showing the benefits of breastfeeding, there were a few who challenged or disregarded the impressive findings. One of the detractors of the study was Dr. Lillian Beard, a pediatrician and professor at GWU and Howard Universities. Instead of looking at the cost-savings, instead, she focused on the COSTS of breastfeeding during an interview on ABC News.
She is quoted as saying
“The biggest barrier to mothers continuing to breastfeed seems to be the fact that more mothers are in the workplace. It’s a very impressive number,” she said of the $13 billion estimate, “but I want to know: Did the study take into account the cost for breastfeeding mothers?” She goes onto say, “I think this report puts an unfair slant on it. It’s not taking into account that for almost two-thirds of U.S. families, women are either the co-breadwinner or the breadwinner. Returning to work is germane for the survival of the family.”
Many in the lactation community, including ABM, Best for Babes, Blactating.com, and the Motherwear Breastfeeding Blog all questioned why a medical professional from the pediatric community would question the study findings. And why did ABC choose Dr. Beard to respond to the study findings, instead of using their own medical correspondent?
It turns out that ABC Family has teamed up with infant formula giant Nestle for several commercial promotions and sweepstakes. Furthermore, Dr. Lillian Beard, Professor of Pediatrics, sits on the Nestle Board and is one of their paid speakers!! Luckily, via the internet, including the very active ABM Facebook page, ABC and Dr. Beard’s connections to Nestle were exposed and addressed rapidly.
Jerry Calnen, ABM President, addressed these concerns in a letter to ABC News:
To: Mr. David Westin, President, ABC News
Mr. Joseph Brownstein, Reporter, ABC News
We are contacting you to raise our concern about an inappropriate “expert” cited in your recent coverage of some very important research. In the article, “Study: Not Breastfeeding Costs U.S. Billions Each Year,” by Mr. Brownstein and published on April 5, 2010, ABC News failed to disclose the formula company backing of the “expert” pediatrician. The article skewed coverage of a recent peer-reviewed study on breastfeeding, extensively quoting a physician with ties to formula manufacturers. The study found that low breastfeeding rates in the US incur $13 billion in excess costs, as well as over 900 excess infant deaths per year. In the article, Dr. Lillian Beard questions the study’s findings. ABC News did not report that Dr. Beard serves on the advisory board for Nestle Family and has participated in multiple marketing campaigns for Nestle’s infant formula products. Dr. Beard’s ties to the formula industry are a clear conflict of interest. Readers deserve to know when a reporter is quoting an industry spokesperson. ABC News failed to mention Beard’s industry ties, identifying her only as an associate professor of pediatrics in Washington, DC. Dr. Beard’s industry backing came to light when several web sites, including Best for Babes, Blacktating and the Motherwear Blog, drew attention to ABC’s skewed coverage. In the future, please take into account physicians’ formula industry ties before reporting on breastfeeding as they promote formula as the best recommended alternative which is in clear contrast to the WHO’s declaration of formula as a mother’s last resort.
Jerry Calnen -President , Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine
I, along with many others, find ABC’s coverage reprehensible on so many levels. It is not surprising that ABC did not reveal its corporate relationship with Nestle, but it is irresponsible. However, what I find most disturbing is that Dr. Lillian Beard, a pediatrician and health professional who is supposed to be promoting what’s best for the baby and mother, has ties to the infant formula industry and uses her authority as a physician to publicly discredit a study that clearly shows the numerous benefits of breastfeeding.
Luckily, through the advocacy of the online lactation community, the conflict of interest was exposed and addressed within a matter of days. However, we must be continue to be vigilant in our efforts to bring to light continued relationships between health professionals/societies and infant formula companies.
Natasha K. Sriraman is a general pediatrician and a professor of Pediatrics at The Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughters/Eastern Virginia Medical School in Norfolk, VA.