Friday, September 22, 2006

Boycott Nestlé - protect infants

It is one of the greatest scandals of our time.

There can be no-one more vulnerable than a new-born child. Without nurture and protection they die. For the first months of life they need breastfeeding and no other food and drink. Breastmilk provides food, adapted to the childs needs as it develops. It also provides protection against infection in the environment. While the childs own immune system is still developing, it receives anti-infective properties in breastmilk produced by its mother. The logical beauty of this never ceases to amaze me: her body produces anti-bodies in response to infections in the environment and some are passed to the child as a tailored medicine to prevent it becoming sick. Other factors are essential for the development of the gut, the nervous system, the whole kit and kaboodle.

Breastfeeding has been described as a continuation of the placenta, passing the necessities for continuing development from mother to child. A child that does not receive human milk is denied the protection and is more likely to become sick and its development will be compromised. Milks from other mammals are just not the same. And so finely developed a system one still not fully understood - cannot be mimicked by even the most sophisticated industrial processes.

Health experts recommend infants are breastfed exclusively (no other foods or liquids, no water, juice or tea) for the first 6 months and then breastfed with other foods into their second year or longer. If that seems a long time there are two important things to remember apart from the health benefits. Firstly, breastfeeding is free and breastmilk is on tap - no bottles to make up in the middle of the night while the baby is crying. Secondly, some breastmilk is better than no breastmilk - but introducing bottles means a mothers own milk supply will be reduced.

Despite the undisputed advantages of breastfeeding, for over a century companies have been hawking their special formulas, claiming they are substitutes for breastmilk. While they are better than nothing and less likely to cause harm than unmodified animal milks, they are still far from the miracle substance that a mother produces for her child. As long as that is understood then formulas can be used appropriately, when necessary, with careful hygienic procedures to reduce the chance of introducing infections which the child is ill-prepared to fight off.

Sadly day in, day out, I see perverted genius at work. People employed by baby food companies dream up marketing campaigns to suggest their formulas are nearly as good as, if not even better, than breastmilk. They are intelligent people and they know 1.5 million infants die around the world every year because they are not breastfed. They are aware of the study in the leading health journal, The Lancet, that calculated breastfeeding could prevent more unnecessary deaths of children under five years of age than provision of safe water, sanitation and vaccination combined. See How many child deaths can we prevent this year? Lancet, Vol 362, July 5, 2003 at

Children in the United Kingdom, where I live most of the time (sometimes I live in Brazil my wife is Brazilian), are unlikely to die if they are not breastfed, but they are more likely to end up in hospital because they get sick. They are more likely to have respiratory and ear infections. More likely to develop diabetes, allergies and other long-term illnesses. More likely to be obese. The marketing people at the companies know this well. Yet their advertising and promotion suggests formula protects against infection and provides everything a child needs for healthy development.

Whether to breastfeed or bottle feed is seen by many people as a question of convenience and lifestyle. According to a survey by the UK Department of Health Over a third (34%) of women believe that modern infant formula milks are very similar or the same as breast milk. See Myths stop women giving babies the best start in life at the Department of Health website

If people in a country with the access to education and information we have in the UK believe such myths imagine the challenge for parents in developing countries, where they may only receive information from baby food companies or from health workers who are targeted by baby food companies.

The scandal is that leading baby food companies, household names such as Nestlé and Cow&Gate, set out to mislead mothers and health workers to increase sales of their breastmilk substitutes. Why? To increase profits. You can see their tactics with your own eyes by visiting the Baby Milk Action website see the codewatch section at

In poor settings, families are making sacrifices to buy formula because they have been persuaded it is somehow better for their child. They may have seen pictures of chubby healthy babies in company materials or believe artificial feeding is the way people feed their children in industrialized, wealthy countries.

Health workers who should know better may have prescribed formula when a mother had a problem with breastfeeding instead of helping the mother solve her breastfeeding problem. It is extremely rare for a mother to be unable to breastfeed if she has support, but without support breastfeeding can be a painful, heartbreaking experience as her child screams for food and she feels her body has failed her. Companies subtly talk up the problems, by, for example, suggesting a mother may not have enough milk or her child may be a hungry baby requiring something extra. With good support mother and baby can work it out so the milk flows freely.

Of course, something must be done to stop this scandal. Thankfully it is.

I am very privileged to work for Baby Milk Action as Campaigns and Networking Coordinator. It is one of the best jobs in the world, and one of the worst. The best because knowing all the above doesnt just makes me angry, it provides me with the information to help design and deliver campaigns to stop the corrupt practices of the baby food companies. It is one of the worst jobs because it brings home what people will do for greed.

Certainly some in the companies are not fully aware of the impact of their actions. Ive worked closely with someone who used to push formula for Nestlé in Pakistan and he didnt realise he was contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants until a doctor explained it to him. He resigned as a result and went on to expose Nestlé practices, including the bribing of doctors. See the website Support Aamir Raza.

The people at the top of the companies are all too aware. They are not only responsible for the marketing campaigns, they invest a fortune in trying to stop people knowing the truth about what happens. I see first hand the lengths they go to to keep this information out of the media. How they try to convince people organisations such as Baby Milk Action are not telling the truth.

The baby food companies are scared. Their market is worth billions of pounds. They are already starting to lose it in some parts of the world. In Brazil, for example, campaigners have been successful in bringing in laws to stop aggressive marketing. The government is actively promoting breastfeeding. Breastfeeding rates are now starting to recover. This means infants are less likely to become sick or die, but it also means fewer sales for the companies. They hate it. In 2003 we had to campaign to stop the law being weakened. Fortunately with the support of people around the world who sent messages to the Brazilian Congress the law was saved.

Our best known campaign is probably the Nestlé boycott. Nestlé is singled out for special attention because evidence shows it is the worst of the baby food companies. We monitor what is happening on the ground with our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). You can see monitoring reports on our website.

The boycott is a great campaign. If you want to do something to stop this malpractice, you can. Stop buying Nestlé products. We focus on Nescafé, so if you cant give up the chocolate and cereals concentrate on that. But the more we can hit Nestlé profits the more likely it is to stop its aggressive marketing. Were not asking it to stop selling formula, just to market it responsibly. That means in accordance with marketing requirements adopted by the World Health Assembly, which is a United Nations organisation responsible for setting health policy. It is made up of the health ministries of the worlds governments.

Most important is to write to Nestlé to tell it you will boycott Nescafé (or all its products) until it abides by the World Health Assembly marketing requirements. You can find contact details and a suggested letter in the boycott section of

If you write to Nestlé you will see how worried it is about the boycott and how much it spends trying to stop it. Nestlé will send you a pile of booklets claiming it is doing nothing wrong. If you check out our website you will find our responses and evidence of what is really happening.

The boycott has been running for a long time. It first began nearly 30 years ago and made this issue known. It led to the World Health Assembly marketing requirements in 1981. Nestlé promised to abide by these in 1984 and the boycott was suspended. But it broke its promise and the boycott was relaunched in 1989.

The boycott keeps the issue in the media. After television programmes on Channel 4 in 1999 (on the Mark Thomas Product) Nestlés Chief Executive promised that labels on formula tins would be in the correct language for the country where they were sold. That had been a requirement since 1981! Nestlé had said it wasn't cost effective to translate labels and it took 18 years of campaigning. There are still some problems with labels, but this was an important victory.

In 2003 we held demonstrations around the country over the course of a week. In the middle of the week Nestlé wrote to us and said it would stop promoting cereal foods for use from too early an age. By promoting them early it was undermining breastfeeding. The World Health Assembly set out the appropriate age of 6 months in 1994. It took 9 years of campaigning and pressure from the boycott to force Nestlé to change, though sometimes we still products or information promoting introduction at 4 months. for example.

Other issues continue, such as providing free samples and supplies which encourage mothers to introduce bottles, which interferes with her own milk supply. Nestlé does a lot of targeting of health workers with misleading information, gifts and promotional material to be given to mothers or put up in hospitals. They target mothers directly with baby clubs. And so on - new tactics keep coming along. So we need to keep up the pressure by spreading news of the boycott.

You can also write to Nestlé and other companies about specific cases. Recently we highlighted how Nestlé was putting health workers into supermarkets in China to target mothers. This was a strategy launched by the Chief Executive of the company. You can write to him saying you know what his company is doing in China and you want him to stop. See the codewatch section of You can also sign up to receive email alerts on the website so you are informed when new information is posted.

While I love my work, this is also one of the most depressing jobs because I see how some people are prepared to see infants suffer to put money in their own pockets and then go to desperate lengths to try to cover it up.

At the same time it is one of the best jobs because I see how many people are prepared to take action to stop it. The Nestlé boycott is the best supported consumer action in the UK. Nestlé is on of the four most boycotted companies on the planet. See

The boycott has the profile it has because of people like you spreading the word. Baby Milk Action has very little money and just three staff and sometimes we can only work part time if there is not enough money to survive. We dont have the cash for mass advertising campaigns, but we do have thousands and thousands of people spreading the word about the boycott and the wider issues. If this is new to you, please explore our website and I hope you will join the campaign.

Even though this is the best supported consumer action, we can always do more and we must because Nestlé has not made all the changes it should make. Infants are still dying needlessly.

So this is the introduction to my blog. I hope youll come back.

There is far too much work to do at Baby Milk Action, but I hope to make short updates here regularly to explain the latest things that are happening in the campaign. Please tell your friends to drop in.

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