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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 and the previous version of this briefing

NEW: Click here to download the pdf version of this paper.

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?

NPRME cover

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 21 April 2005

Nestlé spends a fortune trying to divert criticism of its baby food marketing, but does it tell the truth?

Nestlé has a serious image problem because of its on-going aggressive marketing of baby foods. Instead of making changes required to bring its practices fully into line with international marketing standards, Nestlé invests heavily in Public Relations (PR) initiatives intended to divert criticism. But Nestlé makes demonstrably untrue claims which have resulted in further damaging publicity, such as the cover shown right.
Marketing Week cover

Nestlé’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, launched another offensive in April 2005 with his Commitment to Africa report pictured here (contact Nestlé for a copy).

Health campaigners have succeeded in keeping Nestlé’s baby food marketing malpractice in the public eye. In a global internet vote for the world’s most irresponsible company, coinciding with the World Economic Forum in January 2005, Nestlé received 29% of the vote, more than double the second-placed company.

And national groups have launched boycotts against Nestlé in 20 countries because of its unethical and irresponsible marketing of breastmilk substitutes.

Nestle's Commitment to Africa report cover

Nestlé is singled out for boycott action because independent monitoring conducted by the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) finds it to be 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 worldwide. Nestlé also takes the lead in attempting to undermine implementation of these measures by governments (some examples listed here - needs updating).

According to UNICEF:

"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."

(Click here for further details).

The introduction of the International Code in 1981 should have ended the malpractice, but companies continue to violate it today.

An increasing number of governments have introduced legislation implementing the provisions of the International Code and Resolutions (click here for the International Code Documentation Centre's State of the Code by Country chart - 1.5 Mbytes). Nestlé pushes for unenforceable voluntary codes in place of laws. It even took legal action against the Indian Government in an attempt to have the law there revoked after the company was taken to court for not putting warning notices in Hindi on labels (see the IBFAN report Using international tools to stop corporate malpractice - does it work? for case studies of countries where implementation of the Code and Resolutions is working and where they have been undermined).

Part of Nestlé’s PR strategy sometimes includes claiming health campaigners are trying to ban the sale of breastmilk substitutes. This is totally untrue. The aim is to ensure breastmilk substitutes are marketed appropriately. Other bogus Nestlé’s claims are exposed below. Our position on Nestlé arises from the evidence of malpractice. We are seeking to protect infant health and mothers’ rights. Nestlé’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny. When the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) conducted a two-year investigation into claims Nestlé made in an anti-boycott advertisement, it found they could not be substantiated. Nestlé was warned by the ASA not to repeat the claims. Yet it continues to make similar claims in public relations materials which are not subject to the same regulations as advertisements (click here for details of the complaints and here for the final ruling and here for the Chief Executive's response).

Nestlé’s bogus arguments exposed

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 2004 documents violations of the International Code and Resolutions gathered in 69 countries. As in past monitoring exercises, Nestlé was found to be the source of more violations than any other company. This is why it is singled out for boycott action.

Nestlé’s strategy is to admit to malpractice only years in the past, even though it denied it at the time.

When the exposé The Baby Killer was published in 1975, Nestlé denied any wrong-doing. It even sued campaigners in Switzerland who translated it into German, but had to drop nearly all charges as experts trouped into court to provide substantiation.

Nestlé only won against the title in German, which was ‘Nestlé kills babies’ on the grounds it wasn’t committing deliberate murder.

The Judge awarded token fines and warned Nestlé to change.

War on Want's Baby Killer report

Today Nestlé admits to malpractice in the 1960s and 1970s, though it hasn’t apologised to the families who lost infants during this period or offered any form of compensation.

In 1999 the UK Advertising Standards Authority ruled against Nestlé’s claim in an anti-boycott advertisement that it did not distribute free supplies of infant formula. Today Nestlé claims it used to do so, but stopped in the 1990s.

Malpractice it denies today, will likely be admitted in a few years time. But Nestlé will say: “That was a long time ago. We have changed.”

Nestlé says: So-called violations are not for infant formula, but complementary foods that are not covered by the Code.

The facts: IBFAN’s Breaking the Rules monitoring report separately details violations relating to formulas and those relating to complementary foods.

A favoured tactic is promotion through the health care system. This makes it seem as if Nestlé has the endorsement of health workers. The tissue box on the right is in the style of Nestlé’s Nan formula labels and was distributed to health workers in Thailand.

Nestle tissues in the style of Nan formula
Companies are permitted to provide ‘scientific and factual’ information to health workers, but the materials Nestlé produces on its formulas are misleading and promotional. For example, a leaflet on Lactogen 1 claimed the formula is good for ‘brain, body and bones’ and was dominated by bright pictures rather than scientific information.

Pelargon: Diarrhoean and its side-effects are counteracted

In Botswana Nestlé has distributed a pamphlet for Pelargon infant formula which claims that with the formula ‘diarrhoea and its side-effects are counteracted’ (right and above - click for full image).

This is highly misleading as it implies the formula can be used to treat diarrhoea, but infants fed on Pelargon are at greater risk of becoming ill and possibly dying as a result of diarrhoea than breastfed infants.

Nestle Pelargon pamphlet cover

The World Health Assembly has also adopted Resolutions relating to complementary foods. For example, Resolution 49.15 calls for action "to ensure that complementary foods are not marketed for or used in ways that undermine exclusive and sustained breast-feeding."

Despite this, Nestlé promotes products such as whole milks alongside more expensive infant formula in the infant feeding sections of supermarkets and pharmacies (click here for evidence). Nestlé has even produced promotional materials such as the calendar from the Dominican Republic on the right, which shows Nido whole milk in a feeding bottle.

Nestlé refuses to stop these practices even though it knows poor mothers who have decided or been persuaded not to breastfeed often use powdered whole milk instead of infant formula.

Nestle Nido calendar

Nestlé says: Isolated violations may occur because Nestlé is a big company. Campaigners do not provide information to allow investigations.

The facts: Nestlé’s own internal instructions permit violations of the International Code and Resolutions.

The analysis below shows some of the ways they fall short. UNICEF raised some of these issues with Nestlé’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé in a letter in November 1997 - yet he still hasn’t brought Nestlé’s policies into line.

Monitoring demonstrates violations are ‘systematic’. This description was used first not by IBFAN, but by the Inter-agency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM) in its 1997 report Cracking the Code. Then, as today, Nestlé denied any wrong-doing.

Nestle policy cover

IBFAN conducts monitoring to determine if companies are fulfilling their obligations, not to provide a service to Nestlé.

The International Code (Article 11.3) is quite clear:

“Independently of any other measures taken for implementation of this Code, manufacturers and distributors of products within the scope of this Code should regard themselves as responsible for monitoring their marketing practices according to the principles and aim of this Code, and for taking steps to ensure that their conduct at every level conforms to them.”

International Code cover

IBFAN groups report violations to government enforcement authorities as an on-going activity. Many of the violations in the Breaking the Rules report had been raised with national Nestlé offices before it was published. Why then does Nestlé claim it was unaware of them? Nevertheless, IBFAN provided a detailed list of where the company’s promotions had been found to Nestlé head office when asked to do so. Nestlé did not respond to indicate it was taking any action.

What of Mr. Brabeck’s promise that he personally investigates any hint of a violation?

Nestlé claims to have instigated an 'ombudsman' system, but Baby Milk Action has written to the ombudsman asking for the violations on which Mr. Brabeck has failed to act to be investigated and has received no reply (click here for details).

Nestlé Instructions and the International Code and Resolutions. Where do they differ?

The International Code Documentation Centre (ICDC) trains policy makers on implementing the Code and Resolutions on courses supported by WHO and UNICEF.

ICDC’s legal expert has compared the Nestlé Instructions (on implementing the Code) to the provisions of the International Code and Resolutions, and has found a dozen examples of how the company misrepresents them to justify continued promotion (click here for the full analysis - pdf).

The flawed Nestlé Instructions are used by the auditors Nestlé commissions to verify its activities (such as Bureau Veritas) rather than the Code and Resolutions. Independent monitoring finds violations of Nestlé weak Instructions.

Blue Bear is in town, South Africa

Seeking direct contact with mothers of infants upto 3 years of age is prohibited. Nestlé falsely claims it can contact pregnant women and new mothers if it doesn’t mention formula in the first instance. Click here for the expert opinon of UNICEF's Legal Officer.

International Code and Resolutions

Nestlé Instructions

1. Applies to all countries as a minimum standard. 1. Apply to a list of developing countries of Nestlé’s own invention.
2. Applies to all breastmilk substitutes, including other milk products, foods and beverages marketed to replace breastmilk. 2. Apply only to infant formula and to those follow-up formula with the same brand name.
3. No idealising pictures or text in any educational materials. 3. Allow for baby pictures “to enhance educational value of information”.
4. No promotion to the public or in the health care system, direct or indirect. 4. Allow for company “Mother Books” and “Posters” with corporate logo to be distributed or displayed by health workers.
5. Educational material with corporate logos may only be produced in response to a request by government and must be approved. No product names allowed. 5. Allow educational materials with corporate logos for use by health workers in teaching mothers about formula.
6. No donation of free formula or other breastmilk substitutes to any part of health care system. 6. Allow for free formula if requested in writing by health workers.
7. There should be no display of brand names, or other names or logos closely associated with breastmilk substitutes, in the health care system. 7. Allow for wristbands, feeding bottles, health cards etc. with corporate logo.
8. Promotion of breastfeeding is the responsibility of health workers who may not accept financial or material inducements as this may give rise to conflict of interests. 8. Allow for “general” videos, brochures, posters, breastfeeding booklets, growth charts, etc. No brands but corporate logo allowed.
9. Samples only allowed if necessary for professional evaluation and research. 9. Allow samples to introduce new formulas, new formulations and samples for new doctors.
10. Sponsorship contributions to health workers must be disclosed. 10. On a case by case basis, financial support is allowed (does not mention disclosure).
11. Labels must follow preset standards. WHO does not vet or approve labels. 11. Nestlé claims its labels were developed in consultation with WHO.
12. It is for governments to implement national measures. Independently of these, companies are required to ensure compliance with the International Code at every level of their business. 12. Nestlé Market Managers should “encourage” introduction of national codes [voluntary unenforceable codes rather than laws].

Small victories: In 1994 the World Health Assembly stated that complementary feeding should be ‘fostered from about 6 months’ (click here for Resolution 47.5). It took 9 years of letter writing, media work, demonstrations and further World Health Assembly Resolutions before Nestlé said it would change the labels of its complementary foods to comply (see the codewatch section for past campaigns and Nestlé responses).

19 years after the Code, following a television exposé, Nestlé said it would endeavour to label products in the correct language.

Time for a tribunal

Nestlé’s claims do not stand up to scrutiny and it dislikes having its case challenged.


The company used to refuse to speak in public meetings if IBFAN members were present. This changed in 2001 thanks to pressure from the boycott and Nestlé has taken part in a number of debates with Baby Milk Action in the UK. Nestlé boasts about its openness to face its critics in a new leaflet (pictured above), but fails to mention two things.

Firstly, it continues in its attempts to speak without Baby Milk Action being present.

Secondly, it does not acknowledge that it has lost every debate as its claims do not stand up to the documentary evidence of its own promotional materials (click here for a debate report).

European Parliament

The European Parliament held a public hearing into Nestlé malpractice in November 2000. The IBFAN group from Pakistan, the Network for Consumer Protection, presented evidence of malpractice. UNICEF’s Legal Officer was present to respond to any questions regarding interpretation of the marketing requirements. Nestlé was invited to present evidence on its marketing policies and practices, but it objected to the presence of IBFAN and UNICEF and refused to attend. Instead it sent someone who had been paid to conduct an audit of Nestlé’s activities in Pakistan. The auditor was unable to respond when UNICEF pointed out that Nestlé’s Instructions used for the audit are not the same as the Code and Resolutions (click here for full details).

Nestlé rejects public tribunal

Boycott coordinators have put a plan to Nestlé for ending the boycott (see Boycott News 29). The first point requires Nestlé to accept the World Health Assembly position that the Code and Resolutions are minimum requirements for all countries. Nestlé refuses to do so.

Campaigners cannot re-negotiate the marketing requirements with Nestlé - it is the responsibility of the World Health Assembly to review progress and address new issues and questions of interpretation. However, campaigners are calling for Nestlé to attend a public tribunal, where Nestlé and health experts can present evidence to an independent panel.

The purpose of the tribunal is to evaluate who is telling the truth. Nestlé has rejected this proposal. Individuals and organisations are encouraged to write to Nestlé asking it to agree to the public tribunal. Write to:

Peter Brabeck-Letmathé
Chief Executive
Nestlé S.A.
Vevey, Switzerland.

Or send a message via

A history of PR disasters

Nestlé’s Chief Executive Officer, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, (right) claims that he personally investigates any hint of a violation of the baby food marketing requirements. As the man personally responsible he often over-reacts to criticism of the company, causing Nestlé more problems.

For example, when the UK Advertising Standards Authority effectively branded Nestlé ‘a liar ’ (as the marketing press put it) for claiming to market baby milk ethically, Mr. Brabeck held a press conference in London and lambasted company critics, including the Director General of UNICEF. Stunned journalists then ran headlines such as ‘Mr. Nestlé gets angry’ (Independent on Sunday, 9th May 1999).

Peter Brabeck - the man responsible for company malpractice

A more costly example is when Mr. Brabeck wrote to critics and policy makers around the world with a hard-bound book containing letters which he claimed were “official government verification that Nestlé abides by the Code”. Those who read through the 54 letters found many were no such thing. The company had to apologise as some of the authors complained their letters had been misrepresented and used without permission (click here for further details).

How you can help

Nestlé spends as much on marketing and PR in 15 minutes as Baby Milk Action runs on for a year. We constantly struggle to raise funds to keep operating. Our small number of staff frequently have to reduce their hours when funds are short. Can you help to keep us running by sending a donation, becoming a member or purchasing Baby Milk Action merchandise? Please visit the on-line Virtual Shop.

To send letters calling on Nestlé and other companies to stop malpractice see the codewatch section. You can also send messages of support to governments when Nestlé is lobbying to weaken legislation.

Sign up to support the boycott. Petitions are presented to Nestlé from time-to-time. The boycott section contains suggestions for action.