Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Nestle and its cheque book at the Labour Party Conference

Nestlé has been popping up sponsoring events at the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth, just like last year in Manchester. The approach is all too familiar. Nestlé puts its money into events on topics where it has a Public Relations problem and, unfortunately, people take the money and share a platform with Nestlé as it tries to improve its image. If we aren't there to remind people of the truth about Nestlé activities and, in particular, its aggressive marketing of baby foods and the need to support the boycott, then it gets away with it.

Here's how Nestlé strategy works. Last year Nestlé was due in court in the US as the International Labour Rights Fund brought a legal action over its failure to implement a 5-year plan to erradicate child slavery on the cocoa farms in Ivory Coast that supply it. Nestlé refused to attend a meeting hosted by the Senator who had developed the plan it had signed up to, but was happy to sponsor and attend a public meeting at the Labour Party Conference in the UK about slavery. We did manage to mobilise some leafleters and my colleague, Patti, attended the event to raise questions from the floor. See our press release from the time which links to an audio interview with the Director of the International Labour Rights Fund at:

This year, as well as the baby food issue, Nestlé has been trying to shake off criticisms of its unhealthy foods, which are implicated in the epidemic of obesity, and its illegal water extraction in São Lourenço in Brazil.

So guess the theme of the two meetings it has sponsored at this year's Conference?

On Monday it was on obesity with the New Statesman Magazine. See:

The Public Health Minister was on the panel and someone raised form the audience raised the question of the current consultation on the UK baby food law and questioned how the government can claim to be independent of the baby food industry.

Today it was on water, hosted by the Foreign Policy Centre, under the title: "Water: how can we better manage our most precious resource?" See the pdf downloadable by clicking:

I've written here previously about the ten-year campaign to stop Nestlé's illegal exploitation of water in São Lourenço, Brazil. After meeting the water campaigners at other events, we shared our experiences and helped to organised a meeting in the UK in March last year about their efforts to stop the illegal extraction and demineralisation of water from the historic water park. Nestlé's pumping has affected the natural springs and the tourism on which the town depends.

In 2005 I visited São Lourenço and spoke to the Public Prosecutor who had taken Nestlé to court after the citizens of the town raised a petition. Under the legal system he had to investigate the allegations in the petition and, finding a case to answer, had filed what is called a civil public action. I also met the Congressman, Dr. Rosinha, in Brasilia who had organised a public hearing into Nestlé's operations and found they not only contravened Federal Law, but their attempted justification for continued pumping was totally invalid.

I compiled documents, including a legal opinion from a Federal Prosecutor which again found the activities were against the law and suggested an investigation into possible corruption amongst officials who had allowed it to continue. I also spoke with a hydrologist in the park and collated official test results and investigations into what had happened. This evidence can be made available for journalists and others in the UK interested in this case.

Finally, earlier this year, the Public Prosecutor and Nestlé signed an agreement that pumping had to stop and the park be renovated otherwise Nestlé would be liable for daily fines. Recently pumping did indeed stop, over ten years after it began. Nestlé is now the world's biggest bottled water company and there are similar complaints about its treatment of communities and the environmental impact of its activities in other countries. Including the UK (see the 2005 news report here).

There wasn't time for my colleague Patti Rundall in the fringe meeting audience to raise all this today, but she did question Nestlé's presence there when it is the target of the boycott over its baby food marketing, its illegal water activities and the fact that its own audit, conducted by Bureau Veritas, was being used by Nestlé when it so blatantly failed to give the facts. Nestlé refers to the Bureau Veritas audit in a Public Relations publication on its activities in Latin America. See:

That press release links to supporting documents substantiating the allegations against Nestlé.

Nestlé's Hilary Parsons was on the panel and came out with various claims that she knows to be untrue, saying Nestlé abides by the baby food marketing requirements and that it had done nothing wrong in São Lourenço, citing the Bureau Veritas audit.

I have discussed the audit with the Bureau Veritas investigators. My view is they were either incompetent or part of the misrepresentation of the facts. When I encountered them at the launch of Nestlé's PR report on Latin America they seemed to be unaware of the civil public action, despite having visited São Lourenço and being shown around by Nestlé. Eventually Bureau Veritas admitted: "our work did not constitute a legal audit as such, nor did it include a review of the on-going civil action".

Nestlé's use of a report produced by auditors who apparently didn't even know it was fighting a legal battle over its operations shows just how duplicitous the company is.

You can see some of the evidence yourself by following the links from the press release referred to above. Here's a flavour - the map showing a new wall and expanded bottling plant was built in an area of maximum environmental vulnerability, for which Nestlé did not have permission.

You can also read the transcript of a radio programme recorded by the BBC and broadcast in 2005, and listen to it on line. See:

Those who have taken Nestlé's money for these fringe events and shared a platform with it as it boasts of its 'good works' and brushes aside criticism are in a poor position to hold it to account. They are unlikely to be familiar enough with the evidence to respond to the demonstrably untrue claims made by Nestlé and they would appear rude and ungrateful if they did.

I wish they would think a little more about how they appear involving themselves in Nestlé Public Relations strategy in this way.

For Nestlé it is money well spent. Nestlé loves the image transfer it gains from such events. No doubt, its cheque book is at the ready to book up events for next year.

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