Friday, March 27, 2009

Nestle: engaging with its critics

This is my 500th blog post! Many have been critical of Nestle's practices, always with good reason, and providing evidence to support the claims made.

Nestle claims that it wishes to 'engage with its critics', but the way it chose to 'engage' with us over an internet domain name is very revealing.

This 'engagement' argument was used to good effect with a committee of the Methodist Church. Citing the 'scandal' of Nestle baby milk marketing and praising Baby Milk Action for exposing it, the committee suggested 'engagement' with Nestle could be a parallel strategy to the boycott and decided becoming a shareholder would give it more influence. The fact the investment is intended to prompt change hasn't stopped Nestle from using it to undermine efforts by health advocates to protect infant health. Instead of addressing our evidence when people contact it, or agreeing to participate in a proposed independent, expert tribunal to examine it, Nestle dishonestly uses the investment to imply that we are lone critics. See:

Of course, it is not necessary to invest to 'engage' with Nestle: we are in communication with Chief Executive, Mr. Paul Bulcke. In response to our last letter on company marketing practices, he signalled he has no intention of making any changes in addition to those we won from his predecessor, Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe. The pressure that caused Mr. Brabeck to act, needs to be continued.

So what does Nestle mean when it says it wants to 'engage with critics' and what is it trying to achieve?

Some insight into this is provided by something that has been a rather annoying distraction this month. The background to this is the Nestle Critics website that was launched last year for International Nestle-Free Week. Just before the launch, Nestle's lawyers wrote to us demanding that we hand over the domain name for the site, giving a deadline of 29 September 2008, the same week the site was to be launched.

We saw this as an attempt to undermine the launch and feared that Nestle might put misleading information on the domain name - which had been publicised on this blog for a couple of months - to pass it off as our campaign site to gain information from visitors; the Swiss media was reporting at the time that Nestle had hired a spy to pass off as a campaigner to gather sensitive and confidential information from Swiss campaign group Attac Switzerland. See:

Nestle's lawyers claimed the domain name - - used for the site, originally conceived as 'Nestle's actions speak louder than its words', meant the site was passing off as a Nestle site. This was despite the fact that the site text made it clear that it was providing analysis of Nestle, directed people to Nestle's site for its words and had boycott logos on it. The metadata for the site, that appeared in search engine listings, also made it clear that it was a critics site.

While Nestle suddenly decided it wanted the domain just before our site was to launch, the domain name remained in third party hands and had been registered a year before the .org domain we were using. Indeed, it is still in third party hands and has links to Nestle's competitors on it.

So we thought Nestle's case was without merit. However, we had never intended to gain traffic by mistake and decided to move the site to the domain where it is now found:

We didn't want to hand the domain name over to Nestle during the critical launch period, but as a voluntary measure we placed a 'disambiguation' page on the domain name with links to the Nestle site and the Nestle critics site, saying:

If you are looking for Nestlé's official website, try

If you are looking for the campaign website "Nestle's actions speak louder than its words", for information on concerns about Nestlé practices, visit

Please update your bookmarks.

That did upset any plans Nestle might have had for using a bogus site as another branch of its spying operation (run, incidently, by a former MI6 officer), but otherwise was a very reasonable voluntary action to take.

Some may think it was too reasonable and might have preferred using the domain name and inviting Nestle to take us to court. Now, I don't particularly mind the idea of meeting Nestle in court, but a legal battle over a domain name that we didn't have any strong attachment to was not a good use of our resources. I also preferred the new domain name for its clarity of purpose and wished I'd thought of that first.

So we responded to Nestle's lawyers rejecting its complaints and explaining the voluntary action we had taken to address its unfounded concerns, finishing:

"I trust this is satisfactory and that our voluntary action proves the point that there was never any intention of gaining traffic to the site by error. I might add that Nestlé could have saved itself the expense of contracting your services if it had contacted us directly with its concerns."

That is worth thinking about: why did Nestle hit us with a lawyers' letter, rather than simply writing to us directly, as we do when we find Nestle breaking the baby food marketing requirements?

Surely it was to intimidate us and distract us from the site launch and Nestle-Free Week.

It certainly wasn't the act of a company wishing to engage with its critics. It also backfired as the hi-jack attempt generated publicity for the site and the Swiss spying case.

We heard nothing back from Nestle. Our registration of the domain name was due to expire in September this year and we thought a year was a long enough time for people to update their bookmarks and weren't planning to renew. That seemed the end of the matter.

Then at the beginning of this month we received an email from the World Intellectual Property Organisation about a complaint over our registration of the domain name, followed a few days later by a 500-page document, sent by courier, for the case which Nestle had filed against us.

Now, if Nestle wasn't happy with our disambiguation page, and was a company keen to 'engage', wouldn't its first step have been to reply to our letter of nearly 6 months before? You would think so. Again we saw it as an attempt to intimidate and cost us time and money.

Well, we weren't intimidated. It was more bemusing. Nestle's 500-page document on a domain name is such a contrast with its refusal to submit evidence on the baby milk issue to the proposed independent expert tribunal and the dismissive letters it sends to us when we raise cases of malpractice.

When I received the email notification, I checked the traffic to the Nestle Critics site and found there had been none from the disambiguation page: it had apparently done its job and anyone with the old link had updated their bookmarks. So I contacted the domain name registrar to cancel our registration, hoping to put an end to the battle before it even began. Nestle, hater of tribunals, had asked for a the three-person panel to hear the domain name case, when the norm is for a single investigator.

Ironically before the registrar responded to my email about cancelling the domain, I received a standard email telling me it was subject to a complaint and so the registration was frozen. If Nestle was really motivated by getting hold of the domain, bringing the case had delayed it becoming available.

I wrote to Mr. Bulcke pointing all this out to him.

A reply came from Nestle (UK) Public Affairs, acknowledging that we no longer had a use for the domain and, bizarrely, stating, "I would like to re-iterate the offer to take ownership of the Domain Name". As if its lawyers' letter last year had been a friendly chat. Nestle said if we didn't accept its 'offer' it would continue with the case, requiring us to produce a response to its 500-page report. Not a very good use of our time.

I repeated to the domain registrar that we wanted to cancel the domain and if Nestle wished to register it, that was its decision.

And so that is what has happened. Nestle is now the registered owner of the domain name. We'll keep an eye on it to see if it does post anything misleading.

And we can get on with 'engaging' with Nestle over its baby food marketing policies and practices.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

How the campaign for the Nestle boycott at Sheffield University was won

The following article is from Jess Haigh, who campaigned against the scrapping of the Nestle boycott at Sheffield University this month.

Recently, in response to an upcoming student referendum on the issue, we ran a successful “Vote No to Nestlé” campaign at Sheffield Union, in order to promote the continuation of its Nestlé Boycott.

We are very happy with the result as the removal of the Boycott would not only have been seen as a victory by Nestlé but it would have allowed Nestlé to use our example to persuade other Unions to do the same. Unfortunately, the voting was very close – we only won by 258 votes. This was perhaps due to the wording of the referendum, which suggested we should “engage” with Nestlé on baby milk issues, making it sound like a positive step. Despite the negative implications of such a tight result, it does show how worthwhile it is to run a campaign, as it is unlikely the Boycott would still stand had we not bothered.

There is probably a lot to be learnt from our mistakes in our campaigning – had we noticed the referendum earlier we could have run a much more thorough campaign, and got more people involved. Having a large campaigning group means you can have a good presence on campus, but because of the late notice we gathered up little support, and a two person campaign will only reach so many people.

One thing that was particularly disheartening was the usual comments of “I like Nestlé”, but generally these were the kind of people that would not be converted to the cause. They either already knew of the issues, and liked their precious Kit Kats too much, or just weren’t interested. The best results we got were from people who did not really know about the issues – it was very uplifting to have people stop and ask questions. Even if the campaign had failed, at least we would have managed to increase awareness about Nestlé’s malpractices.

Our campaigning was made particularly hard by the wording of the referendum. Obviously it is a ridiculous idea that one small Student’s Union dropping the boycott and “engaging” with Nestlé will make Nestlé turn around, confess to all their wrongdoings, and completely reform the company, yet on paper it sounded pretty persuasive. As well as general awareness of the boycott, one of the most important things was telling people about the uselessness of this “engagement” method.

Generally the most important thing we found in running a campaign like this was just getting the word out, and making people aware of the campaign. The best way to do this is to get as many people as possible involved, with handing out leaflets, putting up posters, and just talking to people about the issues. Also take advantage of all opportunities to speak about the issues – we spoke at the Union Election’s hustings, and through that managed to get word out to about 300 people at once. Baby Milk Action helped us with evidence and its website is also a useful source of information:

By continuing the Boycott, we are sending a message to Nestlé that people are still aware of, and bothered by, their malpractices. Nestlé will care about this result – if they were unfazed by Union Boycotts like ours then they would not have spent precious resources, through sending 5 company representatives, in order to convince the Union to drop the Boycott. The success of our campaign, particularly given the small scale at which we ran it, shows that it is relatively easy to spread awareness about issues like this, and that campaigning does make a difference, and is always worth it.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Update on Nestle, chocolate and children

An update on child labour and trafficking in its cocoa supply chain has been posted on the Nestle Critics website. See:

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Nestle promoting breakfast cereals in schools

Nestle 'box tops for education' scheme has come up again. This is where Nestle encourages teachers to promote its breakfast cereals (most of which are crticised for being high in salt and sugar) to their students. The school received a few pennies for each box top brought in. It is not only a cheap marketing scheme, but a way to undermine the boycott.

Here's a message I sent today when this came up on the Nestle boycott yahoo group:

It is a great idea to ask the school not to take part, explaining why. In other cases the school has then written to all parents explaining why they are not supporting the scheme. Some of these have agreed to be listed on Baby Milk Action's special page, which also has resources to help you campaign:

We also have a pack of materials at:

It may also be an opportunity to encourage staff, governors and students to think about commercial sponsorship. We have a pack of resources, which is available to download at:

This includes an exercise in which students discuss and develop a school policy on commercial promotion which can be taken to the governors.

In the past we have debated with Nestle at schools, but having lost all debates it now refuses to participate. There is a video filmed by a Brighton school at:

A campaign pack, including a DVD from UNICEF Philippines is available at:

The film can also be watched free of charge online via that link.

Do let us know how you get on.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Nestlé loses anti-boycott referendum at Sheffield University

Sheffield University Students' Union held a referendum on ending support for the Nestlé boycott last week. The proposal was rejected. The boycott stands.

All students and others who are campaigning to hold Nestlé and other baby food companies to account can learn some important lessons from what happened.

Nestlé had lobbied hard for the suspension of the boycott, sending a team of five to brief a student committee, including two people from its Webber Shandwick Public Relations firm and Chris Sidgwick. Chris is the midwife who is advocating that UK health workers use Nestlé materials on wards and who wrote an inaccurate article for the British Journal of Midwifery as part of this strategy. See:

We did suggest a debate be held, but this was not taken up. Nestlé has lost every debate where a vote has been taken and has refused to attend any since 2004. A film of a past debate is available in our online Virtual Shop at:

I was unable to go to Sheffield myself when we were invited to brief the Committee and so spoke to them by telephone last year. Many thanks to them for giving time to this issue.

We were invited to comment on the report and both Baby Milk Action and Save the Children, contacted the Committee to try to correct some of Nestlé's misinformation.

The Committee was swayed, however, to recommend addressing "ethical issues involved in promoting breast-milk substitutes" through a strategy of 'engagement' with Nestlé, implying that ending the boycott was necessary to 'engage'. The Student Union Council decided against ending the boycott immediately and arranged for a referendum to take place alongside election of officers and other referenda.

The motion was: "Do you agree that the Union should end its boycott of Nestle, although not actively promote their products, but engage with Nestle and other manufacturers on the ethical issues involved in promoting breast-milk substitutes?"

This is a very interesting approach, as it does not suggest there is no problem, but puts 'engagement' forward as a better way to prompt changes from Nestlé.

This is the strategy that Nestlé tends to use these days, knowing it is unable to win the argument about its marketing practices. So there is the irony that it refuses to participate in debates and refuses to even set out its terms and conditions for taking part in an independent expert tribunal examining claim and counter claim, but tells third parties that it wishes to 'engage' with critics.

This worked with the Joint Advisory Committee on Ethics in Investment (JACEI) of the Methodist Church. The Church Central Finance Board invested in Nestlé following the report, presenting this as a way to 'engage' on matters of concern. A press release specifically referred to the ‘scandal of inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes’ and commended Baby Milk Action for exposing this.

The Methodist Conference text adopted following the report stated: "JACEI acknowledges the continuing concern with regard to some aspects of Nestlé’s interpretation of the International Code, the implementation of company guidelines and the transparency of the procedures for monitoring compliance. These concerns may cause some through conscience to maintain a consumer boycott of Nestlé products."

Investment was portrayed as a complementary strategy. Yet the investment is now Nestlé's principal argument against Baby Milk Action's campaign, used to persuade George Clooney to work with the company, for example.

For Nestlé it does not matter if the Church is pressing it for changes in private, if it can misleadingly suggest to the rest of the world that a past critic is no longer criticising it.

So it would have proved if Sheffield students had voted to suspend the boycott in favour of 'engagement'. Today we would no doubt be seeing Nestlé stating the boycott had been dropped and most likely a concerted campaign calling on all other student unions to do likewise.

The statement from Save the Children would have been ignored. It is quoted in the referendum information:

"...violations by Nestlé are systematic. We have no reason to believe that this has changed."

Fortunately the majority of students voting rejected the call to end the boycott. The vote was 1737 for ending the boycott and 'engaging' with Nestlé to 1998 rejecting this call.

So the boycott stands. Hurrah! And congratulations to all those who campaigned on the 'No' vote and those who voted against it.

Undoubtedly many of those who voted for the motion did so with a desire to hold Nestlé to account by the 'engagement' route. Many would presumably have been shocked at the way Nestlé would have spun the result had the boycott been called off.

The boycott is a long-running campaign and some question its effectiveness when it hasn't produced all the changes required of Nestlé to bring its policies and practices into line with World Health Assembly standards. However, it is effective to a point. It forces some changes in policies and practices, particularly when specific cases of malpractice at targeted; it keeps this issue in the public eye: thousands of students at Sheffield have been considering the issues.

The boycott should also be seen as one of a range of strategies. Baby Milk Action 'engages' with Nestlé: we write to its Chief Executive and try to persuade Nestlé (UK) to participate in debates. We are trying to get the independent, expert tribunal off the ground.

We also work for legislation, while Nestlé opposes independently monitored and enforced regulations fully implementing the World Health Assmebly standards. The fact that we can tell policy makers that Nestlé is 'widely boycotted' (to use the expression of Nestlé's Global Public Affairs Manager), helps to put them on their guard when Nestlé comes knocking.

When Nestlé talks of 'engagement' what transpires in reality is denials and deception. Whatever Nestlé's new CEO has told the Methodist Church investors, he still rejected the validity of the World Health Assembly marketing requirements last year when we asked him to accept them to start the process of changing company practices and ultimately ending the boycott. If the Methodist Church threatened to disinvest unless Nestlé makes these changes, that may have an effect, otherwise I fear they are being led on and exploited for public relations purposes.

Had the referendum gone Nestlé's way at Sheffield, I somehow doubt I would be writing here in a few months time that Nestlé's has bowed to the logic of the arguments put to it by the student committee and everything has been resolved. The fact is, this company puts its own profits before all else. It continues to market baby foods aggressively because it provides a massive income for the company, regardless of its contribution to the needless death and suffering of infants around the world. If the suffering of babies hasn't prompted changes, this shows Nestlé is not easy to persuade to fulfill its obligations! It is concerted campaigning that has won the changes we have achieved.

Losing the referendum at Sheffield will hurt Nestlé. Aside from the financial impact, there is the bad publicity and the flack the anti-boycott team will receive from senior management. Senior management have once again received the message that the boycott is still not going to go away and their best chance of ending the boycott is by making the changes required by the World Health Assembly.

The last time he wrote to me, Mr. Bulcke refused to make these changes. More pressure please.

Friday, March 06, 2009

SNP pledges action on companies promoting complementary foods for use at too young an age

In 1994 the World Health Assembly adopted a Resolution stating that complementary feeding should be fostered from about 6 months of age. Exclusive breastfeeding is recommended until 6 months of age, followed by continued breastfeeding with the introduction of complementary foods.

Yet here we are fifteen years later and you will see that the public health advice is routinely undermined by companies promoting complementary foods for use from 4 months of age or even less. The advantage for companies is that at a younger age, babies will need more processed food, like purés, than if allowed to start taking complementary foods at the age which is natural to them (baby-led weaning is a concept that is growing in popularity).

And if companies can entice parents to use their purés, then they gradually move them along the supermarket shelf to the foods labelled for older babies. Allow babies to taking solids when they are ready at six months of age and they can eat home prepared foods alongside the family (subject to some care over salt levels, for example). Six months is not set in concrete - it is a general recommendation.

The evidence base for the health benefits (as well as cost savings) of not introducing complementary foods too early has grown steadily. Today, Alyn Smith, a Member of the European Parliament for the Scottish National Party has announced his is taking up the case is Europe. The article posted on the SNP site explains why and what he aims to achieve at: