Friday, June 22, 2007

Seeing Nestlé clearly

Nestlé has responded to our campaign about its Lactogen infant formula fliers in Bangladesh exposed by The Guardian on 15 May 20007. The reply is both misleading and contains an unjustified criticism of Baby Milk Action. You might think such a response would annoy me, but, seeing Nestlé clearly, there are far bigger issues to be angry about.

A quick resumé of the background. The Guardian journalist found the wards in the hospitals she visited filled with sick infants who had been formula-fed. She also found pads of fliers distributed to health workers for handing on to mothers for Nestlé’s Lactogen infant formula. Nestlé’s Hilary Parsons, Head of Corporate Social Responsibility, had a response published in the paper arguing the fliers were providing essential information to mothers and were a ‘safety measure’.

Nestlé is called on to ensure its practices at every level comply with the provisions of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. The provisions are very clear. No promotion of breastmilk substitutes at all. Information to health workers must be limited to scientific and factual matters and materials are not to be passed on to mothers. The health care system is not to be used to display or distribute material on company products within the scope of the Code. Educational and information materials intended to reach mothers cannot refer to products within the scope of the Code.

I went through this provisions in detail on a past blog. See:

However you consider the fliers, they are violating the Code’s provisions.

We featured the case on our Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet, asking supporters to send a message to Nestlé calling on it to abide by the Code and stop such marketing practices in Bangladesh and all countries. See:

The action sheet has a record of success, stopping some of the more blatant violations and helping to force policy changes. For example, we asked supporters to write to the companies for years over their failure to abide by the 1994 World Health Assembly Resolution saying that complementary feeding should be fostered from about 6 months. Companies continued to label complementary foods for use before 6 months of age. We also raised this at Nestlé’s shareholder meeting and worked with governments to implement the Resolution in national measures. After 9 years of campaigning, Nestlé finally agreed that it would stop marketing complementary foods for use before 6 months, at least in some countries. It told us mid way through a week of demonstrations we were holding at Nestlé sites around the country. We still find it breaking the provision, but it has been an important policy shift.

But there is another purpose for the Campaign for Ethical Marketing. It is to compel the companies to answer for their practices. They do not always respond to Baby Milk Action, but when members of the public, their customers, contact them, they are more likely to do so. We can then analyse their responses and see how they attempt to justify their actions.

So what of its promotional fliers? I have just posted Nestlé’s public response on our website, with an analysis. You can see it at:

I will quote it here too:

---Quote begins
Dear ****,

Thank you for your recent e-mail.

I would refer you to Article 4.2 of the WHO Code which states:

"Informational and educational materials, whether written, audio, or visual, dealing with the feeding of infants and intended to reach pregnant women and mothers of infants and young children, should include clear information on all the following points:

(a) The benefits and superiority of breast-feeding.
(b) Maternal nutrition, and the preparation for, and maintenance of, breast- feeding.
(c) The negative effect on breast-feeding of introducing partial bottle-feeding.
(d) The difficulty of reversing the decision not to breast-feed.
(e) Where needed, the proper use of infant formula, whether manufactured industrially or home-prepared.

When such materials contain information about the use of infant formula, they should include the social and financial implications of its use, the health hazards of inappropriate foods or feeding methods and, in particular, the health hazards of unnecessary or improper use of infant formula and other breast-milk substitutes. Such material should not use any pictures or text which may idealize the use of breast-milk substitutes."

The campaign group Baby Milk Action has failed to refer to this article in the WHO Code which allows such information to be given by health professionals to mothers.

Please see More detailed information can be found on and for an update on our position in the marketing of baby milk.

Yours sincerely,

Beverley Mirando
Senior Policy Adviser
---quote ends

The text Nestlé quotes is, indeed, part of Article 4. Baby Milk Action linked to the full text of it and summarised it, but only quoted directly the part relevant to fliers for Lactogen formula: "...Such equipment or materials may bear the donating companys name or logo, but should not refer to a proprietary product that is within the scope of this Code..."

It is irrelevant whether the other information specified in part 4.2 is there or not. Describing promotional materials as ‘informational and educational materials’ does not make them acceptable under the Code’s provisions. If they are referring to a product they are a violation. It could not be clearer.

So we immediately see three things from Nestlé’s response.

Firstly, it is prepared to misrepresent the Code to try to divert criticism. This is not a case of grey areas, or confusion over interpretation. What part of “should not refer to a proprietary product that is within the scope of this Code” can Nestlé claim is unclear? Nestlé hopes that people will take its quote at face value and not look to the full text of Article 4. There is one word to describe Nestlé's approach: dishonest.

Secondly, Nestlé is not going to stop distributing the Lactogen fliers, in Bangladesh or in other countries. If it does not accept the practice is prohibited, it is going to continue using health workers to promote its infant formula to mothers. As The Guardian article explains, and a recent film from UNICEF Philippines also exposes, health workers are offered gifts and other inducements by Nestlé. Former Nestlé employee, Syed Aamir Raza, has given the view from the inside on the tactics used to recruit doctors. Documents he has made public expose tactics such as giving large donations, for an air conditioner for example, on the condition that sales of formula go up. See his report Milking Profits. Handing out Nestlé’s promotional fliers is one way to achieve this. Health workers, who may not appreciate the risks of formula feeding and not be well trained on supporting mothers when they have problems with breastfeeding, too easily hand over a flier. Even when infants become sick, the connection with formula feeding may not be made. Yet the evidence of increased risk of diarrhoea and death, as well as other illnesses, is well documented. Certainly Nestlé is well aware.

Thirdly, Nestlé criticises Baby Milk Action in a totally unjustified way, trying to make it appear as if we have misrepresented the Code.

You might think that this third point annoys me, but there is a more significant finding from Nestlé’s response to get angry about.

Take a little time to look through the Code and Nestlé's policies and practices and its underlying strategy for its baby food business becomes clear. It is trying to divert criticism through a process of denials and deception so it can continue to boost sales of formula, regardless of the impact on infant health.

Nestlé’s response is part and parcel of the corrupt practices of this company. Nestlé's Public Relations machine and the anti-boycott team Beverley Mirando now heads exist to enable Nestlé to continue to put its own profits before other considerations – including the truth, mothers' rights and infant health.

That should make any human being angry. And, hopefully, motivated to take action.

In a world with the correct values, Nestlé executives would appear before a judge and be imprisoned for crimes against humanity. The company would be subject to punitive fines to more than offset any enrichment its aggressive marketing brings. Let us say, we are working on it! Legislation and the seriousness of the authorities works in some countries, such as Brazil. But not in others. In Costa Rica Nestlé ignored its court summons over illegal labelling and itself ridiculed the size of the fine the court imposed. We need more countries with independently monitored and enforced legislation and the global community as a whole needs to introduce systems to hold corporations as powerful as Nestlé to account when national governments fail to do so.

At the end of the day, Nestlé understands one thing: money.

Which makes every one of us very powerful.

We can deny Nestlé that it desires most: our money.

Every one of us can judge the evidence and then take appropriate action.

Refuse to give Nestlé money.

Join the boycott and spread the word. We have lots of resources to help you.

We are currently promoting International Nestlé-Free Week, (2-8 July) as a way for boycott supporters to approach people who are not already boycotting. You can add the logo and link that appears on this blog to your own. Click on it to see how.

If others are reluctant to support the boycott, you can ask them to at least give up Nestlé products for one week and tell Nestlé they are doing so. A suggested email is given on the campaign page. When they realise there are alternative products and it is not so hard to deny Nestlé money, perhaps they will continue.

If you do encourage people to boycott you may find they do not have the time or inclination to listen or to look into the issue. They may contact Nestlé and take its assurances at face value. They may wave Kit Kats in your face!

If you are like me, though, when you see Nestlé clearly then you find reserves of patience.

Any annoyance I may feel at its dishonesty and unjustified attacks on Baby Milk Action is as nothing alongside the injustice Nestlé does to mothers and infants around the world.

I feel I am very fortunate to be able to see Nestlé clearly, to see through its dishonesty, and I feel a responsibility to use the power I have to hold it to account.

I hope you feel the same.

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