Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Looking back on 2008 and forward to 2009

And so here we are in 2009 and it's time to fire up this blog after a bit of a New Year break.

Last year was as eventful as ever and sets the scene for what is to come. 2008 opened with us going to the High Court in London to help the UK government in defending the new Infant Formula and Follow-on Formula Regulations. Though we disliked the regulations for being little better than those they replaced, the baby food industry was trying to undermine them further and ultimately succeeded in doing so, winning a delay in labeling requirements. Our position had been company's labels are currently illegal, so they should be withdrawn in any case.

Companies contempt for the rule of law in the UK was further demonstrated when Heinz launched its new 'Nurture' range of formulas, using health claims that had been illegal since 1995 and continue to be illegal.

In May we began producing regular monitoring reports to submit to the government review panel investigating the effectiveness of the law. The reports profile the main companies, expose practices that we believe violate the regulations and explain what enforcement authorities have - or have not - done to hold them to account.

We are grateful for the public donations that go towards the monitoring project, as we have no other funding for it, essential though it is. The monitoring evidence was submitted to the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child which, in October, called for the UK government to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and commented in its report on the UK that: "aggressive promotion of breastmilk substitutes remains common."

In the wider world, we saw a UK Member of Parliament defending Nestlé after an all-expenses-paid trip to South Africa. Tom Levitt MP attacked the boycott, claiming Nestlé misbehaviour was decades in the past. We contacted him regarding the malpractice he missed while on his jolly to South Africa, including advertising of infant formula in supermarkets and prohibited health claims on labels. These strategies were not only criticised by the Department of Health, but Nestlé competitors reported it to the Advertising Standards Authority in a ultimately unsuccessful attempt at stopping what they saw as a clear breach of the marketing requirements. So Nestlé endangers infant health to boost its profits, while driving down standards for the industry as a whole. It is shameful that a Member of the UK Parliament supports them in this. While we have provided information to Mr. Levitt MP and requested a meeting, we have still not received a reply from him.

We campaigned in support of stronger regulations in South Africa, which have still not been finalised. We joined with partners in successfully defending Brazil's strong regulations - an important victory, but one that stops us moving backwards, rather than gaining anything extra. Such is the nature of some of our work, something that is difficult to raise funds for.

Nestlé used a variety of other strategies to try to divert criticism of its practices. In March it launched a report with the UN Global Compact office. This is an unmonitored and unenforced scheme introduced by Kofi Anan, when Secretary General of the UN, as an alternative to regulatory systems. Nestlé uses it for Public Relations purposes, the report it produced having important omissions and factual inaccuracies.

Nestlé gained a new Chief Executive Officer in April, Mr. Paul Bulcke. We sent him a letter of welcome and put the four-point plan to him for saving infant lives and ultimately ending the boycott. He rejected it.

In the Scottish Parliament a 'No to Nestlé' campaign was launched, which has seen some local authorities to switch to alternative suppliers.

Campaigners in Switzerland embarked on legal action against Nestlé after it was revealed that Nestlé had hired someone to pass off as an activist to infiltrate the group to gather sensitive and confidential information. The spy's reports included information on the baby milk campaign. The spy was run by a former MI6 agent employed by Nestlé.

In August it was revealed that not only is Nestlé one of the world's most boycotted companies, it is one of the world's most criticised.

For International Nestlé-Free Week in October, a new website was launched as a portal to information from experts concerned about Nestlé practices. Nestlé lawyers threatened Baby Milk Action with legal action over the site and demanded the domain name be handed to Nestlé just days before the launch. We refused, concerned at Nestlé's history of 'passing off' as activists to gain sensitive information and suspicious of what it may put on the site. The launch went ahead as the Nestlé Critics website.

In the UK, Nestlé pulled out of the Children's Book Prize, after a winner refused to accept Nestlé's money.

Nestlé also continued with its efforts to break into the UK formula market, recruiting Dr. Miriam Stoppard, alongside Nestlé cheerleader, midwife Chris Sidgwick. Trading Standards confirmed that a Nestlé video Chris Sidgwick launched for midwives was being distributed in breach of regulations.

It was a 'reporting year' at the World Health Assembly - every two years the Director General makes a report on progress in implementing the marketing requirements. This only looks at government action on legislation, not company's responsibility to abide by the requirements independently of government action. That aspect of monitoring has to be done by us with our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN). We attended the Assembly and called for renewed enforcement action and other steps to address current concerns.

We continue to take the lead in strategic thinking on holding corporations accountable, drawing on our experience to argue for international regulatory systems. Personally I am proposing there be a World TNC Regulatory Authority.

Towards the end of the year, the scandal of melamine contaminated formula in China emerged. We reminded people how Fonterra/Sanlu, the company at the centre of the scandal, had been pushing formula for years in breach of marketing standards. We analysed claim and counter claim regarding levels of contamination and showed that Nestlé's claim that its milk products were unaffected was untrue, as one was on the contaminated list, though at lower levels than the Sanlu products.

The year of 2009 began with yet another emergency, this time in Gaza, where formula has been sent by well-meaning, but ill-informed, people. This puts lives at risk, as I reported in March with information on a UN meeting on infant feeding in emergencies. We put out similar warnings in response to disasters in Burma and China.

This is just some of the things going on in 2008.

For Baby Milk Action it was a particularly difficult year as we had to cut staff hours even further. For me this means that, while trying to do as much as I can unpaid, I do sometimes have to take on freelance work to make ends meet. Hopefully the situation will improve - we live in hope - but it may be in 2009 this is not quite a daily blog. Apologies for that.


Rob A said...

Mike, and colleagues at Baby Milk Action, thank you for your work in 2008.

I've enjoyed reading this blog over the year.

Keep up the good work for 2009.
I hope the economic downturn's impact is not too severe.

half pint pixie said...

Thanks for all your hard work! It is making a huge difference, and it is really important work.

Best of luck for 2009!