Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Looking for justice

I am disturbed by the news from China that two people have been executed for their role in supplying milk contaminated with melamine, which led to thousands of babies being hospitalised and at least 6 deaths. In the UK not even mass murderers face the death penalty. See:

The Chairwoman of the Sanlu company that sold baby milk containing the contaminated milk - even after knowing it was contaminated - was sentenced to life imprisonment, the BBC reports.

Even if you think the death penalty should never be applied, there is a marked contrast between long prison sentences and the lack of action against the executives of transnational corporations whose marketing practices undermined breastfeeding in China and elsewhere in the first place. Don't take this the wrong way - it is certainly not a suggestion these executives should be killed, but a suggestion that they should indeed end up in court and face an appropriate sentence for their willful and deliberate breaking of international marketing standards in the pursuit of increased profits.

Instead of this happening, we found the Chairman of Nestlé, the worst of the baby food companies, being given a platform at the World Food Summit to tell policy makers his views. See:

Nestlé executives also make much of their links with the UN Global Compact, a voluntary corporate social responsibility initiative introduced by then UN Director General, Kofi Anan, when others were pressing for regulatory systems.

We have registered a complaint with the UN Global Compact alongside other Nestlé Critics - see:

This is an ongoing process, so I won't say more about it at this stage. However, while pursuing this complaint we learned that Nestlé had offered a substantial sum to the UN High Commission for Refugees. This may or may not be directly linked to the review we are calling on the UN Global Compact Office to conduct, but it does raise questions about whether we can expect to have a fair hearing if Nestlé is a multi-million dollar donor to the UN.

At first sight it may seem that any money going into UNHCR initiatives must be good news, but Nestlé has stated in the past that it only pursues charitable endeavours if these will benefit shareholders. See:

In a case like this we might see Nestlé seeking to increase income by influencing UN policy and gaining routes to market for its products and using the link to try to divert attention from efforts to hold it to account in the many areas of its business where there are concerns.

Development organisations and health campaigners from around the world joined us in voicing concerns about the possible deal and it has been abandoned by UNHCR.

It is welcome the UN is not taking the money. Now we hope it will take the next step and conduct the review called for under the Global Compact Integrity Measures and exclude Nestlé from the Global Compact until it changes its policies and practices. Such changes have the potential to have a far greater impact on people's health and well-being. Remember, breastfeeding is the most effective health intervention with the potential to prevent more under-5 deaths than provision of safe water, adequate sanitation and vaccination.

UNICEF has stated: "Marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding are potentially hazardous wherever they are pursued: in the developing world, WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. These facts are not in dispute."

The UN Global Compact is not even intended to be monitored or enforced and stresses that it focuses on 'facilitating dialogue'. Well, we have been 'dialoguing' with Nestlé and other companies with decades, but that doesn't force changes - exposés and consumer action prompt changes. Those are the strategies we need to use while the UN system is ineffective at enforcing the marketing standards and human rights norms that companies should abide by.

Monday, November 16, 2009

LA Times on Nestlé's Twitter PR Disaster

There is an interesting article in the Los Angeles Times about bloggers accepting corporate hospitality, gifts etc.

It includes reference to Nestlé's Twitter PR disaster last month, though lacks the full story. An extract from:

---Extract begins
But critics of the company countered that the event was a public relations ploy in reaction to an ongoing boycott of Nestle for marketing baby milk formula as a substitute for breast feeding in developing countries.

In fact, before the trip, critics reached out to the bloggers invited to California and urged them to not go.

No one canceled.

As the event got underway, the online conversation quickly turned into an online battlefield. The company's Twitter channel was so inundated with anti-Nestle messages, and nasty accusations aimed at the attendees, that it was essentially shut down. The company, caught off guard, let the parents field questions aimed at executives until finally stepping into the fray.
---Extract ends

I saw several bloggers say they had been invited to the event and refused to go. Not the same as canceling, but bloggers on the invitation list were not all blind to the conflicts of interest in attending, even if unaware of the boycott.

Nestlé is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet, according to an independent survey, because it is found to be responsible for more violations of the marketing standards for baby foods than any other company.

The LA Times article is a little lazy in characterising the posts to the #nestlefamily hashtag as 'anti-Nestlé messages' and 'accusations aimed at the attendees'. The vast majority of posts were raising concerns about Nestlé practices and posting links to evidence (I became aware of the event through traffic to our sites) and responding to specific requests from some attendees for questions to put to executives, including the Chief Executive of Nestlé USA.

Nestlé came online briefly and offered to take questions. I offered to take part in a tweet debate directly with Nestlé on behalf of Baby Milk Action, but this was not taken up. Nestlé stayed on line for an hour or so, promising to come back the next day to respond to questions, but did not.

The fact is Nestlé runs from fora where there are people with the knowledge to challenge its bland assurances that it markets formula 'ethically and responsibly' (a claim that the UK Advertising Standards Authority found to be untrue when Nestlé made it in an anti-boycott advertisement). It not only ran from the questions on Twitter, it now refuses to debate with Baby Milk Action, after we won a series of them from 2001 - 2004. Nestlé refused to attend a European Parliament Public Hearing in 2000, when UNICEF Legal Officer was present to address questions regarding interpretation of the marketing requirements Nestlé should be following (Nestlé claims its own interpretation is correct, while dismissing all others, including UNICEF). And Nestlé refuses to even set out its terms and conditions for participating in an independent expert tribunal into its policies and practices.

Nestlé prefers to direct people to its own website and provide written answers, but not defend them when these are scrutinised, perhaps hoping the majority will accept its assurances at face value. Those who do look closer generally come away more shocked and dismayed at Nestlé's deceit as it tries to defend practices that contribute to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants.

Nestlé's reticence to engage with informed critics can be understood given how its response to questions put by the PhD in Parenting blog has fueled concerns rather than dissuaded those looking at this issue. Nestlé's answers have been posted in full on the blog, and can be found via:

As is often the case, Nestlé's attempt to divert criticism became a PR disaster and gave International Nestlé-Free Week a boost in the US in its third year. The week aims to encourage boycotters to do more and non-boycotters to do something to increase the pressure on Nestlé. Boycotting has forced some changes and greater involvement can only help. See:

Friday, November 13, 2009

Brabeck attacks 'well-fed' activists as he tries to set food security agenda

Think of Nestlé and the fact it is one of the world's four most boycotted companies will likely come to mind. You may think of how it pushes baby milk in breach of international standards, undermining breastfeeding and contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of babies around the world.

You may think how it competes with the most locally produced and sustainable food there is - breastmilk - making processed cow's milk, packaging it and transporting around the world to market it with untrue claims and inducements and jollies for health workers.

You may think of the food miles the company's strategy of promoting processed foods over local foods generates, the resources consumed, the green house gases emitted.

You may think of its impact on water supplies and the campaigns around the world by people who do not want Nestlé bottling their water and transporting that large distances to make a vast profit.

You may think of its promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms and the campaigns that have been waged in countries around the world to stop these being used.

You may think of the national dairy industries that have been destroyed or are under attack in places such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Brazil. You may think of the dairy farmers and coffee farmers who have had their livelihoods destroyed by Nestlé sourcing strategies.

You may think of the children forced to work on the cocoa farms that provide Nestlé with cocoa and its failure to live up to its public assurances it will address this problem.

You can find information on these and other concerns about Nestlé practices at:

Nestlé's Chairman, and former CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, wants you to think of none of these things. The man who is at the cutting edge of undermining local food security, wants “well-fed activists” to shut up.

As reported in today's Financial Times, Mr. Brabeck argues it is those: "whose hostility to new food technologies was exacerbating a global food crisis by holding back agricultural productivity."

Mr. Brabeck is trying to set the agenda at an international meeting on food security. From the Financial Times report:

"It is disheartening to see how easily a group of well-intentioned and well-fed activists can decide about new technologies at the expense of those who are starving,” he told a conference in Milan aimed at bringing the private sector into the debate on global food security."

Well, it has never been easy exposing Mr. Brabeck's dishonesty and the corrupt practices of the company he runs - remember he claimed to investigate any hint of a violation of the baby food marketing requirements, yet oversaw some of the most aggressive practices ever documented. Remember the claim that formula prevents diarrhoea, Mr. Brabeck? Or the claim you are currently putting on labels claiming formula 'protects'? It doesn't - babies fed on it are more likely to be ill than breastfed babies and in the poor countries where you do not fail to push these products, they are more likely to die.

Mr. Brabeck neglects to mention that it is in developing countries where you will find strong opposition to Nestlé practices. Those of us in Europe have a responsibility to try to carry their voice to Nestlé's doorstep and to the seat of the powers that should be holding Nestlé to account.

The article continues: "'Food security is not a short-term issue,' he said. 'It will affect [many] more than 1bn people if we do not change radically how we handle the world’s water.'"

Should the Food and Agriculture Organisation really be taking lessons from Mr. Brabeck?

Consider that Nestlé exploitation of water resources has generated opposition around the world. In the Brazilian town of São Lourenço Nestlé's water-bottling operation broke federal law according to a federal prosecutor, but it took a 10-year campaign and finally the threat of daily fines to stop it pumping. Here's a map from the case showing how Nestlé's pumping operation was operating in the area of maximum environmental vulnerability.

This was raised at shareholder meetings and directly with Mr. Brabeck, but still Nestlé refused to stop pumping until a settlement in a court case brought following a petition raised by the people of the spa town who were seeing their livelihoods from tourism destroyed. See:

It is a petty jibe at 'well-fed activists', particularly coming from a man whose basic salary was reported at the shareholder meeting as US$ 5 million per year, boosted to US$ 16 million by shareholdings. Such wealth and power gives Mr. Brabeck preferential access to those who will decide how food security will be addressed. If he has his way, you can bet sugary, salty breakfast cereals, junk food and breastmilk substitutes will be a key part of it and Nestlé will use its participation in the current meeting in Milan and any 'partnerships' that emerge from this cosying up to such bodies in its strategy for undermining the influence of civil society still further.

For an overview of what governments and international bodies should be doing to protect food security, see the book produced by a Task Force of the UN System Standing Committee on Nutrition, called Global Obligations for the Right to Food. I wrote the chapter on holding corporations to account.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Nestle pursuing Fairtrade certification for Kit Kat

The Daily Mail has reported that Nestlé is in discussions with the Fairtrade Foundation in the UK about certifying its Kit Kat brand as Fairtrade. We don't know if this will happen yet, but the Fairtrade Foundation did award a Fairtrade mark to a token Nescafé product in 2005. See:

Earlier this year, Cadbury's had its Dairy Milk chocolate Fairtrade certified. This was welcome and has obviously put other companies under pressure, but as world cocoa prices are currently above the price that Fairtrade certification guarantees, there is little extra cost to the companies. As The Guardian reported back in March:

---extract begins
Fairtrade terms require buyers to commit to a minimum price of $1,600 a tonne. For more than two years the open market price has been climbing and yesterday reached $2,213. This is the longest period prices have stayed above the guarantee price and the International Cocoa Organisation yesterday predicted a third year of "production deficit". This makes a Fairtrade commitment more affordable than in previous years.
---extract ends

The advantage for farmers comes because there is a Fairtrade premium and when prices drop the minimum price sets a floor that means they still make a profit. Also various criteria on issues such as child labour have to be guaranteed.

Which raises the question, if Nestlé believes it is able to make these guarantees for the cocoa going into its Kit Kat, why has it not taken the action it promised in 2001 to end child slavery in its cocoa supply chain as a whole? Why pursue Fairtrade for one product, while boycotting a meeting called by Senator Horkins, one of the initiators of the Horkins-Engel protocol?

We can learn from history. When Nestlé gained a Fairtrade mark for its Partners' Blend brand of coffee, this was used in a national advertising campaign.

This failed to mention that just 0.02% of its coffee purchase was covered by the scheme, involving 0.1% of the farmers dependent on Nestlé. Nor did it acknowledge that Nestlé has been criticised for driving down prices for the millions of coffee farmers dependent on it - sometimes below the cost of production. The Fairtrade Foundation received some criticism for giving an award for such a small commitment from Nestlé. See:

The advantages to Nestlé of receiving a Fairtrade mark for Kit Kat is explained in the Daily Mail article: "It would boost the image of Kit Kat's parent, Nestle, which has been criticised over its ethical standards."

Such a boost would be totally unwarranted. The farmers in the scheme may benefit, but for those outside it would be business as usual, except now Nestlé could use the Fairtrade product to divert criticism.

How much good PR Nestlé would achieve is also open to question. An evaluation of its Partners' Blend launch shows that it also drew attention to its malpractice. See:

As with Nestlé's Twitter PR Disaster last month, sometimes it shoots itself in the foot. See:

But we can expect Nestlé to use any certification in trying to divert criticism. In 2006 when Senator Horkins called on the chocolate companies in the US to explain why they had not met their promise to end child slavery in their supply chains within 5 years of the 2001 agreement, Nestlé boycotted the 18 September meeting. However, a few days later on 25 September 2006, it sponsored a meeting at the ruling Labour Party Conference in the UK celebrating the 200th anniversary of the outlawing of slavery. Without any sense of shame, the title of the event was: "Is Slavery History?". See:

Nestlé has been taken to court in the US by the International Labor Rights Fund over its failure to act on its commitments. You can find a 2009 update on the Nestlé Critics site:

This was one of the issues raised in a complaint to the UN Global Compact Office in July 2009. Nestlé violates the principles of this voluntary initiative and uses it as public relations cover. See:

If Kit Kat is certified as Fairtrade, we will continue to list it on the boycott products list, along with Partners' Blend coffee. The boycott puts pressure on Nestlé to make changes to policies and practices to bring them into line with standards adopted by the World Health Assembly. Making those changes will benefit far more people than a token Fairtrade product and the boycott has been essential for forcing the changes we have achieved. See:

In evaluating Nestlé's motives, we shouldn't forget that the Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, has said that Nestlé should only support charities if it will benefit his shareholders and the reasoning here will be the same. See:

I have my quote ready if this does go ahead: Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, said: "Nestlé is already using a Fairtrade mark on a token product representing just 0.02% of its coffee purchase to try to divert criticism of its trading practices, which have been blamed for driving down prices for millions of coffee farmers. While the coffee and cocoa farmers in Fairtrade schemes should benefit, if proper independent audits are done, that provides little comfort to the vast majority of suppliers outside the schemes. Legal action has been taken against Nestlé in the US over its failure to act on child slavery in its cocoa supply chain, despite public claims that it is doing so, and we have already seen it trying to divert this criticism by, for example, sponsoring an event on the abolition of slavery at the Labour Party Conference.

"When Nestlé is on the record as saying that charitable contributions should benefit its shareholders, we should not be too excited by one of the world's most boycotted companies pursuing something like this. We will continue to include Kit Kats on the list of boycott products and recommend that anyone who is concerned about promoting real change for people in developing countries support the boycott and buy their products from companies with positive business values, not just token initiatives. There are companies whose entire output is Fairtrade certified after all. Nestlé systematically violates baby food marketing standards, undermining breastfeeding and contributing to the needless death and suffering of babies around the world - the changes we have been able to force on Nestlé are because of the boycott and it will continue until Nestlé brings its policies and practices into line."

Monday, November 02, 2009

How was Nestlé-Free Week for you?

How was Nestlé-Free Week for you? Just another Nestlé-Free Week? The first time you took boycott action? The first time you heard of Nestlé baby food marketing malpractice? A good strategy to telling people about the boycott?

Should we now stick to the last week of October for Nestlé-Free Week from now on to build its profile until Nestlé accepts the four-point-plan for saving infant lives and ending the boycott?

The boycott runs throughout the year. Nestlé-Free Week is intended to boost the boycott: for those who boycott to do more, for those who don't boycott to do something. It provides an opportunity for people to tell others about how Nestlé pushes its baby milk in breach of international marketing standards and endangers infants (if this is new to you, click here). When people say they would boycott, but can't give up their favourite Nestlé product, they can be challenged to do so for this week, and may then continue boycotting when they have found an alternative product. That's the theory. Does it work, or might people think the boycott is just for one week a year?

Share your views and experiences in the comments below.

We want the week - and the on-going boycott - to gain ever more support. Nestlé has helped us to promote the week in the past through its public relations gaffs. And it was no different this year.

2009 Nestlé-Free Week 26 October - 1 November (possible new fixed date): Nestlé's Twitter PR disaster boosts the week, particularly in the US, where the week encompasses Halloween and Nestlé candy was boycotted.

2008 Nestlé-Free Week 4 - 10 October (20th anniversary of current boycott launch) : Nestlé attempts to derail launch of Nestlé Critics website, drawing more attention to it.

2007 Nestlé-Free Week 2 - 8 July (30th anniversary of 1st boycott launch): Nestlé's Global Public Affairs Manager admits Nestlé is 'widely boycotted'.

We have a particular focus for action at present: persuading Nestlé to remove logos from its formula labels that claim it 'protects' babies. Keep up the pressure by sending a message to Nestlé if you have not done so already by going to: