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Nestlé's public relation machine exposed

This paper gives an overview of the campaign against Nestlé and responds to arguments Nestlé has used in the recent past in letters, booklets and briefings.

Also see the Your Questions Answered page and Boycott News, which is archived in the resources section.

NEW: Click here to download the April 2005 version of this paper. The text below will be updated shortly.

Can you send us a donation or become a member to help us raise funds to print this paper and counter Nestlé's major new PR offensive?

If you have had any other arguments put to you by Nestlé staff or have any questions of your own, please contact us for further information.



Last update 30 May 2002

The Nestlé Boycott

Nestlé is the target of a boycott in 20 countries because of its unethical and irresponsible marketing of breastmilk substitutes. The Nestlé boycott is the most popular consumer boycott in the UK 1 Nestlé controls about 40% of the worldwide baby milk market. It is singled out for boycott action because it is the largest single source of violations of the World Health Organisation's (WHO) International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions 2.

The International Code and Resolutions basically ban the promotion of breastmilk substitutes and limit companies to providing scientific and factual information on products to health workers. It is for health workers to advise mothers on infant feeding choices, not companies with a vested interest in encouraging artificial feeding. The International Code also specifies information which should appear on product labels and states that labels should be in an appropriate language. Yet Nestlé continues to violate the International Code and Resolutions, putting its own profits before health. WHO estimates that reversing the decline in breastfeeding could save 1.5 million infants lives around the world every year 3. Where water is unsafe a bottle-fed child is up to 25 times more likely to die as a result of diarrhoea than a breastfed child 4.

An increasing number of governments have introduced legislation implementing the provisions of the International Code since it was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. Nestlé has taken the lead in attempting to undermine implementation of these measures by governments (see later).

This briefing has been prepared to answer the latest arguments presented by Nestlé's Public Relations Machine as it attempts to portray itself as an ethical and responsible company.

Boycott Nescafé advertisement In 1996 the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) called on Baby Milk Action to justify statements made in the advertisement shown here, following a complaint. The claims were: "Every day, more than 4,000 babies die because they're not breastfed. That's not conjecture, it's UNICEF fact." and "They [Nestlé] aggressively promote their baby milk, breaking a World Health Organisation code of marketing." We justified our claims and the complaint was rejected. For full details see the ASA Monthly Report Number 62.

In May 1999 the ASA upheld all of Baby Milk Action's complaints about a Nestlé anti-boycott advertisement. Nestlé claimed that it markets infant formula "ethically and responsibly". Nestlé also lost its appeal against the ruling. Read the full story

Our struggle to be heard

Nestlé is a master of Public Relations techniques 5 and can draw on massive resources. For every pound Nestlé receives from sales it spends 15 pence on promoting its products and its image 6. This amounts to a staggering promotional budget of US$7 billion every year - that's more than the combined government expenditure of 28 of the world's poorer countries 7.

Baby Milk Action works for independent, transparent and effective controls on the marketing of the baby feeding industry. Our budget is approximately US$300,000 per year 8 - Nestlé spends more than this promoting its business every 30 minutes.

The bulk of Baby Milk Action's budget is spent assisting our overseas partners as they work for the implementation the International Code and Resolutions in national measures and to stop company malpractice. Our resources for tackling Nestlé's PR Machine are limited. You can help us to spread information by referring friends and colleagues to our website.

Nestlé's "Charter" Nestlé often responds to criticism with a copy of its "Charter".

Nestlé portrays its "Charter" as if it implements the WHO International Code but the "Charter" contains important omissions as our leaflet Nice Design - Shame About the Text reveals. (Contact Baby Milk Action to order our leaflet).

The "Charter" not only falls short of the International Code and susbequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions. Our monitoring shows that Nestlé also breaks its own "Charter". Click here to download our expose: Nice design - shame about the text.

Nestlé's bogus arguments

You may be reading this briefing because of a letter that Nestlé sent to you. We address Nestlé's usual arguments in this section. If there is anything more specific you want answered, please contact us. Baby Milk Action is part of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) consisting of over 150 citizens' groups in over 90 countries. Our information is based on the first hand experiences of our partners.

The publications referred to may be ordered by contacting us. Many are available in our resources centre.

Nestlé says:

The problems with the marketing of breastmilk substitutes were resolved long ago.

The facts:

IBFAN's latest monitoring report Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2001 reports on marketing practices in 14 countries and reveals that violations of the International Code and Resolutions continue to occur. Baby Milk Action's Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheets also highlight violations.

At the 1998 World Health Assembly WHO stated 9, "In summary, Mr Chairman, if we are serious about wanting to improve the health, nutrition and well-being of our children, all governments need to urgently reflect the recommendations of the Code and subsequent resolutions in their own laws and regulations and take suitable action accordingly. NGOs must be supported to intensify their monitoring efforts specially in view of the HIV epidemic [see later section]. Infant-food industry needs to be proactive and more responsible to monitor its own marketing practices and respond promptly to correct all violations that are reported." WHO has suggested that a series of meetings are held to address the "obstacles" to implementation of the Code.

Ethical investment funds, which scrutinise companies very closely, continue to exclude Nestlé. A new list launched by the FTSE in 2001 also excludes Nestle - see report in Boycott News 30.


Nestlé says:

Remaining problems will only be solved by co-operation.

The facts:

Nestlé rejected a four-point plan put to it by Baby Milk Action in March 2001. The plan would have saved infant lives and ultimately ended the boycott. Nestlé refuses to accept the World Health Assembly position that its marketing requirements are minimum requirements for all countries. Nestlé refuses to accept that it must change its marketing policy and practice to bring them into line with the World Health Assembly measures (see report in Boycott News 29).

The Nestlé boycott, which first began in 1977, mobilised public opinion against the unethical marketing practices of the baby food industry and helped to prompt the drafting of the International Code. Nestlé opposed the adoption of the International Code in 1981, with Nestlé Vice-President, Ernest Saunders, head of the industry body, describing it as "irrelevant" and "unworkable". Nestlé has had 21 years to co-operate by following this recommendation of the world's highest body in the health field. (see the History of the Campaign briefing paper).

Nestlé has opposed the Indian Government's implementation of the International Code by issuing a Writ Petition against the government, following the criminal prosecution of Nestlé over its labelling (see Update 20).

Nestlé reacted to Zimbabwe's implementation of the International Code in March 1998 by threatening to close its factory (see Update 23). Nestlé's best-known product in Zimbabwe is reported to be breakfast cereal, which is not affected by the new law.

Baby Milk Action's Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet has brought about important changes in the marketing practices of Nestlé and other companies (see the updates on the Campaign for Ethical Marketing index page).

Nestlé says:

HIV changes the situation.

The facts:

The risk of transmission of the HIV virus through breastfeeding presents mothers, health professionals and organisations such as IBFAN with a dilemma concerning decisions about infant feeding. However, it is a bogus argument to say this means marketing regulations should be scrapped. It should be remembered that the International Code and Resolutions aim to ensure that all mothers, whether they breastfeed or artificially feed, receive unbiased and adequate information and that the majority of mothers are able to breastfeed their infants safely. Addressing this issue at the World Health Assembly in 1998 WHO stated 9, "It is essential that we safeguard the gains that have been made in protecting breastfeeding, ensuring the survival of millions of infants."

See the briefing paper HIV and Infant Feeding

Nestlé says:

Governments have endorsed its baby food marketing activities.

The facts:

Claims such as this have caused trouble for Nestlé and it has had to apologise for mis-representing government letters. For an in-depth analysis of the book Nestlé implementation of the WHO Code, which contains letters from 54 governments, see the briefing paper: Don't Judge a Book by its Cover.

When the European Parliament conducted a Public Hearing into Nestlé's activities, Nestlé refused to attend after numerous attempts at 'influencing' the programme. See the report in Boycott News 29.

Nestlé says:

The boycott has no effect.

The facts:

Nestlé admits that the boycott acts as a "catalyst" to raise awareness of the issues. For example, there was national media coverage following calls by celebrities for a boycott of the Nestlé sponsored Perrier Award at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2001 (see report in Boycott News 30).

Nestlé produces many glossy booklets and leaflets attempting to deflect the calls for change coming from members of the public. It employs Public Relations staff to counter the campaign. This indicates the level of its preoccupation.

Nestlé Chairman, Helmut Maucher, led a conference on setting the globalisation agenda organised by the International Chamber of Commerce (of which he is President) in September 1998. One session was on The business of business in the global economy and posed the question, "How should business react to a new phenomenon: the growing pressure imposed by 'civil society' groups on intergovernmental organisations and on business?" The Managing Directors of McDonald's and Shell also took part in the discussion.

After first opposing the International Code Nestlé now claims to support it in a narrow set of circumstances (applying it to infant formula only and in developing countries only). While there is still much cause for concern, the boycott has been instrumental in bringing about important changes that have been made. It should be remembered that Nestlé marketed sweetened condensed milk as infant food up until 1977, when the boycott first began.

After years of refusing to debate the issue with Baby Milk Action, Nestlé has now given ground. Apparently this is because Nestlé is having difficulty in recruiting graduates, such is the company's bad image amongst students. Unfortunately for Nestlé's strategy, the debates are strengthening rather than weakening support for the boycott (see report in Boycott News 30).

Nestlé says:

The Church of England and the Royal College of Midwives dropped their boycotts.

The facts:

Nestlé attempts to undermine the boycott by targeting endorsers. For example, it lobbied the Church of England hard in 1994 and as a result the Church decided to suspend its support for the boycott while conducting its own investigation. The Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM) was formed, consisting of a total of 27 church, development and academic organisations. Research was conducted in Bangladesh, Poland, South Africa and Thailand and published as the report Cracking the Code in 1997 (See summary in Update 20). The report concluded that companies are systematically violating the International Code and Resolutions. UNICEF stated that "the findings of IBFAN are clearly vindicated by this report." 10 Nestlé and the industry went to great lengths to discredit this research (See briefing paper How the baby food industry is orchestrating the attack on Cracking the Code). However, it has been peer reviewed and was published by the British Medical Journal in 1998 11.

When the Church of England Synod met in York in 1997 it affirmed the conclusions of Cracking the Code. Nestlé was concerned that the Church would resume its support for the boycott and issued a public statement supporting the motion debated by Synod which included a call for companies to abide by the International Code and relevant, subsequent Resolutions adopted by the World Health Assembly. The subsequent Resolutions are important because they clarify interpretation of the International Code and address new marketing strategies and changes in scientific knowledge. Nestlé had attacked Cracking the Code on the grounds that it referred to the subsequent Resolutions. Its statement at Synod was the first time that Nestlé had indicated that it would abide by the subsequent Resolutions and some delegates may have decided against reinstating the Church's boycott because of this. Nestlé's statement was an empty Public Relations tactic, however. Nestlé continues to attack the Resolutions and to violate these and the International Code.

It was suggested at Synod that, instead of applying pressure through the boycott, the Church would use its investments in Nestlé to enter into "dialogue" with the company to encourage it to change its ways. We continue to provide the Church of England's Board of Social Responsibility with evidence of Nestlé's malpractice, but have yet to be informed of any progress emerging from the Church's strategy of engaging Nestlé in "dialogue". In a disturbing move the York Council of Churches announced some months after the Synod meeting that it had accepted a donation of 100,000 pounds from Nestlé 12.

York Industrial Chaplaincy At the Church of England Synod in York in July 1997 Nestlé Public Relations staff trumpeted the company's support of the Church in York. Nestlé was concerned that the Church would resume its boycott following the exposure of "systematic" violations of the marketing code in the report Cracking the Code.

The Synod affirmed the conclusions of the report Cracking the Code, and called for companies to abide by the International Code and Resolutions, but stopped short of calling on churches to reinstate the boycott.

In March 1998 the York Council of Churches announced that it had accepted 100,000 pounds from Nestlé 12.

The 1997 Conference of the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) responded to Cracking the Code by adopting a motion noting the "widespread abuses" and suggesting that the RCM Council "reconsider its hypocritical position of boycotting Nestlé whilst continuing to accept sponsorship from other infant feeding manufacturers." Many midwives expected the RCM Council to stop taking money from the companies named in the report. Instead the Council opted to drop the Nestlé boycott, continue to accept funds and to work from "the inside".

The boycott belongs to the people and is a living and dynamic movement. While the Church of England and RCM have dropped their boycotts, neither did so because they believed Nestlé had changed its marketing practices. And while some organisations drop the boycott and take money from Nestlé or work more closely with the industry, others wake up to the facts and join the boycott. A list of boycott endorsers is available from Baby Milk Action.

The World Development Movement joined in with the 1998 demonstration, which takes place at Nestlé (UK) HQ in Croydon. The event is organised by the Baby Milk Action London Group.

The findings of Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 1998 were presented at a public meeting. Nestlé was invited to send a representative to put its case, but refused to do so.


Who speaks for Nestlé?

A favoured technique employed by Nestlé is to cite so-called "independent" experts who endorse its activities. For example, when dismissing the evidence in the report Cracking the Code it quoted the eminent French pediatrician, Professor Jean Rey. Nestlé failed to reveal that Professor Rey works for the Nestlé Research and Development Centre, Perrier Vittel Water Institute. Neither did it mention that since at least 1987 Professor Rey has edited books in the Nestlé Nutrition Workshop Series. Professor Rey was a member of the EU Scientific Committee for Food which advises on food standards and we had long been concerned that he did not reveal his connections with the baby food industry when advising on infant food standards. Glenys Kinnock MEP raised this matter in the European Parliament following Nestlé use of his name and position.

Nestlé's booklet- Nestlé: complying with the WHO code

In its latest booklet, Nestlé: Complying with the WHO Code, illustrated above, Nestlé attempts to divert criticism of its baby food marketing activities. In the booklet Nestlé pictures the flags of 17 countries and implies that each country endorses Nestlé's marketing activities. However, closer inspection reveals that the statements alongside each flag come from one individual or organisation within the country. We have been examining these claims in greater detail on the Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet to expose the truth about Nestlé's activities.

Consider, for example, Bolivia. Nestlé's booklet quotes the Sociedad Boliviana de Pediatra, Bolivia as follows: "At the same time, we emphasise that Nestlé has kept within the norms established by the Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, with a high level of ethics and in a very appropriate manner... It should also be mentioned that Nestlé has always respected the laws which govern the feeding of children in our country and has always encouraged and respected the principle that breastfeeding is the best way of feeding infants."

The Sociedad Boliviana de Pediatra has had a long-running relationship with Nestlé. Its periodical bulletin is produced and printed using Nestlé sponsorship. Nestlé is also the main sponsor of events organised by the Sociedad. So is the statement of support accurate? IBFAN Bolivia recently conducted a monitoring exercise and found that Nestlé violated the International Code in Bolivia by:

  • giving free samples of infant formula to mothers
  • giving posters promoting Nestlé infant formula to health facilities
  • giving gifts to health workers bearing the Nestlé logo and complementary food brand names
  • producing information materials on infant formula, follow-on formula and complementary foods which are not limited to scientific and factual matters
  • promoting follow-on formula and complementary foods at the point of sale
  • producing infant formula labels without all the required information

Nestlé also violates the World Health Assembly Resolution 47.5 in Bolivia by labelling complementary foods as suitable for use before the age of 6 months.

Investigation reveals similar stories behind other endorsements in Nestlé's booklet (See the Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheets, especially the series of cases: Nestlé's PR booklet exposed).

Does the boycott affect jobs?

The boycott puts pressure on Nestlé to change its marketing practices. It is difficult to measure how much the boycott is costing Nestlé, but we do know that in 1992, the year after the Church of England joined the boycott, Nescafésales fell by 3%. Not a single worker lost their job as a result of this fall. In 1993 Nestlé increased its Nescaféadvertising spend by 75% to 14 million pounds, which may have created jobs in advertising. (Figures from MEAL and A.C. Neilson)

The boycott has brought about significant changes

The boycott was instrumental in bringing about the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981. In 1984 it led to Nestlé agreeing to abide by the Code. It continues to exert pressure on the company and the rest of the industry. Order information on Baby Milk Action's Campaign for Ethical Marketing for examples of violations which have been stopped as a result of public pressure. The glossy brochures Nestlé produces and the Public Relations staff it employs to try and counter the boycott demonstrate how seriously it is concerned about the effect on its image.

We encourage everyone to join the boycott and to write and tell Nestlé that they will no longer buy its products until it abides by the International Code and Resolutions. If boycotting all Nestlé products is too difficult, why not focus on Nescafé coffee, Nestlé's flagship product.

Write to: Mr. Alastair Sykes, Nestlé (UK), St George's House, Croydon, Surrey, CR9 1NR.

Join Baby Milk Action and support the campaign.


1. Ethical Consumer Magazine December 1997. (return)

2. Breaking the Rules reports, IBFAN. The latest report is Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules, 2001. (Return)

3. Numerous occurrences. Baby Milk Action successfully defended this statistic before the UK Advertising Standards Authority (see above). (return)

4. Facts for Life UNICEF, WHO, UNESCO, 1989. (return)

5. Engineering of Consent: Uncovering Corporate PR - Judith Richter, Cornerhouse, 1998 - Contact us for a copy. (return)

6. Tribune de Geneve, 17 October 1997. (return)

7. World Development Report 1997 - The following countries: Mozambique, Burundi, Malawi, Chad, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Niger, Burkina Faso, Togo, Gambia, Madagascar, Gunea-Bissau, Haiti, Mali, Cambodia, Central African Republic, Benin, Nicaragua, Georgia, Mauritania, Guinea, Albania, Congo, Kyrgyz Republic, Armenia, Lesotho, Macedonia and Moldova. The combined GDP of these nations is only slightly more that Nestlé's turnover. The combined total Government expenditure is US$6.8 billion for a combined population of 168 million, less than Nestlé's US$7.2 billion annual promotional budget. (return)

8. Typically our income is made up as follows: European Commission grant 31%, Charitable grants 30%, Membership 16%, Publications and Merchandise 11%, Donations 9%, Other 3%. We are not permitted to use the grant income for promoting the Nestlé boycott. (return)

9. Statement on Infant and Young Child Nutrition by WHO Executive Director of Family and Reproductive Health to the 1998 World Health Assembly. (return)

10. UNICEF press release, 14 January 1997. Contact UNICEF Communication Section (Tel. +41 22 909 55 23 for a copy). (return)

11. Violations of the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes: prevalence in four countries. British Medical Journal Volume 316, 11 April 1998. (return)

12. Church Times 27 March 1998. (return)