Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Evidence on show

I had meetings in London today and dashing into the office to print off some documents, I picked up a copy of the British Journal of Midwifery that had just arrived. It was the September issue and I turned to the letter pages to see if my letter had been included.

This was a response to an article that shocked many midwives. The article went under the title: "The Nestle issue from an evidence based midwifery perspective." There was a lot wrong with the article, perhaps unsurprising as the lead author is a midwife who is campaigning to bring Nestle-sponsored infant feeding materials into the National Health Service and their research consisted of going on an all-expenses-paid trip to Nestle HQ. I am sure this is part of the company's strategy to break into the UK formula market - something the company has tried unsuccessfully twice before.

We have posted a detailed response to the article on our website, so here I will just mention one of the dodgy statements. The authors mentioned a booklet called the Baby Killer which was very important in the history of the campaign for bringing Nestle baby food marketing practices to public attention and leading to the first boycott campaign. The booklet was translated into German and published in Nestle's home country of Switzerland. The authors said: "Nestlé sued and won but it damaged their public profile." From which you might think the booklet was not telling the truth about what the company was doing.

We know that is misleading, but to demonstrate the fact, I dug documents from the time of the trial out of the files. These and many others have now been scanned and added to the site. Doing this work inspired the development of a theatre piece which I performed with some actor friends at the World Organisation of Music and Dance (WOMAD) Festival in Reading at the end of July. The piece sets the scene of the trial, which reached its climax 30 years ago. We involved the audience with games such as naming Nestle products to boycott and taking the 'Nestle challenge' - mixing up a bottle of formula in the conditions faced by many mothers in poor countries ("here's a bucket - the river is over there").

And then we come to the Judge's ruling. But before he could rule, in a dramatic move Nestle withdrew three charges against the booklet, meaning campaigners could continue to claim the practices of Nestle and other companies were "unethical and immoral" and "that by its selling practices Nestlé was responsible for the death of or the permanent mental and physical injury to thousands of infants."

Executives had said they would resign if they lost on those points and it was clear after the evidence presented to the court that they were going to lose. Although he could not rule on the charges because Nestle had withdrawn them the Judge said: "the need ensues for the Nestlé company fundamentally to rethink its advertising practices in developing countries as concerns bottle feeding, for its advertising practice up to now can transform a life-saving product into one that is dangerous and life-destroying." On stage I tried to deliver this in my most sonorous Judge's voice for maximum impact. Imagine the real thing. This and the evidence presented is what damaged the company's profile.

The one remaining charge was against the title. This had been changed so the German meant 'Nestle kills babies.' The Judge decided this was too serious an allegation as it implied Nestle was guilty of setting out to murder babies. But the people from the group that had published the booklet were fined just a small amount.

The reference used by the authors of the article in the British Journal of Midwifery did give some of this detail, but they did not include it. Instead they just said: "Nestlé sued and won but it damaged their public profile."

Which just goes to show it is wise to look a little closer if people are claiming the campaign against Nestle is not based on solid evidence.

You can read our presentation of what really happened. You can read the original documents and other references to make up your own mind.

Or you can try to catch the Baby Milk Action theatre company in action. We are taking bookings.

Or if you want to put on a play yourself, contact me to discuss how we can help.

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