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Nestlé runs from debate with Mark Thomas - and loses yet again to Baby Milk Action

20 October 2003

Latest 1 November 2003: Should the Student Union boycott Nestlé products? Referendum result:

  • Yes: 1,304

  • No: 559

As at other universities, after the debate 'No' campaigners were reduced to arguing it should be an individual choice whether to boycott Nestlé. Support for individual boycotting is perhaps reflected in the 213 spoiled ballot papers. The argument that Nestlé does nothing wrong is unsupportable. Union officers are discussing how to respond to the result as turnout was below the 5,000 required to dictate union policy.

Post-debate update

Nestlé lost yet another debate with Baby Milk Action, this time at Nottingham University on 20 October. The final vote for the motion: 'This house will boycott Nestlé' was 184 in favour, 26 against, 28 abstentions (see note 1).

Nestlé's Head of Corporate Affairs, Hilary Parsons, was asked why she had effectively banned Mark Thomas from taking part in the debate and replied that she had no objection to him being in the audience, but thought it would be unbalanced to have him on the panel. The organisers informed Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action after the event that Nestlé had made it clear they would walk out if Mark Thomas was in the room.

Mike Brady responded: 'I am afraid it no longer surprises me to learn that Nestlé's Head of Corporate Affairs has made an untrue statement. I am pleased with the vote, particularly as I was only able to address a small number of the denials and deceptions made by the Nestlé team due to time. It would be nice if Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck, dismissed staff who mislead the public in this way, but they are doing his bidding. They all need to go.'

Click here for Baby Milk Action's opening statement from a recent debate.

Update 24 October: Baby Milk Action has been contacted by the organisers of the debate as Nestlé is apparently upset by the above analysis regarding Nestlé's refusal to appear if Mark Thomas was present. Nestlé apparently blames the organisers for 'misunderstanding' what was meant. We recall all too vividly Baby Milk Action representatives being asked to leave the audience in the past at Nestlé's insistence - not for making any disturbance, but simply for being there. Pressure from the boycott and student protests has forced Nestlé to debate with Baby Milk Action. Given its record and general obstructiveness in arrangements for debates, Baby Milk Action believes the onus was on Nestlé to clearly state the conditions it was placing on the organisers if its threat to walk out if Mark Thomas was present was not intended to be taken as an outright ban. To clarify this after the event (and after the press release below) is of little use and lacks credibility. Nestlé's comments are, however, an important precedent for future debates, for which we are grateful.

The 'truth' according to Nestlé...

"The only contact that I would say with the mother is through the label."

Beverley Mirando,
Senior Policy Advisor, Nestlé.
Speaking at the Nottingham Forum debate.

...and the truth.

As Beverley was speaking Nestlé was running this advertisement in the press in South Africa. Click for the large version. It says "Hey mums, Nestlé Blue Bear andthe Baby-Care Friends are in town. If you're concerned about what, when and how to feed your little one, come along to an event in your area. You'll receive an absorbing 15-minute talk on baby feeding and be taken through the Nestlé Developmental Nutrition Plan, conducted by a qualified clinic sister. You'll also learn more about feeding your baby according to her developmental stage, to best suit her nutritional needs."

Nestlé does not tell the truth about its baby food marketing activities. Also see Nestlé's "Calling all mothers to be" leaflet in the codewatch section, where you will find information on action you can take to stop Nestlé malpractice.

Comedian and investigative film maker, Mark Thomas, has accused Nestlé of 'moral cowardice' for refusing to debate with him at Nottingham University. Mark had agreed to appear to talk about the Nestlé baby food marketing malpractice uncovered on his Channel 4 television programme and the promise made to him by Nestlé Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck, which was subsequently broken. Explaining her refusal to debate if Mark Thomas was present, Nestlé's Head of Corporate Affairs, Hilary Parsons, said 'The controversies surrounding the marketing of infant formula are complicated and involving an entertainer - any entertainer - on one side only would lead to an unbalanced debate.' A debate will go ahead between Hilary Parsons and Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action at 5 p.m. on 20 October. Mike Brady said: 'I would have preferred the organisers to stand firm, but they have withdrawn Mark's invitation. I have to go to expose the demonstrably untrue claims Hilary makes about Nestlé's activities.' Students will be holding a cross-campus referendum on boycotting Nestlé in the near future. Mike Brady and Mark Thomas are available for interview.

Mark Thomas told Baby Milk Action his opinion of Nestlé: 'It shows Nestlé's moral cowardice. They are not interested in genuine health issues, but the appearance of concern for health issues. They are prepared to manipulate a debate for their own commercial ends.'

Nottingham University students will hold a referendum to renew a student union boycott of Nestlé products shortly. When students at the University of East Anglia held a referendum after a Nestlé/Baby Milk Action debate, there was a 2 to 1 majority in favour of the boycott, with those against reduced to arguing for 'freedom of choice'. In the past Nestlé used to refuse to even speak at a public meeting if Baby Milk Action was present, but backed down from this position in March 2001 due to pressure from the boycott and because students denied the company a platform unless it would debate. Students also targetted Nestlé graduate recruitment events.

Mark Thomas investigated Nestlé for his Channel 4 programme and interviewed Health Ministers from African countries. Now Nestlé dismisses him as a 'professional entertainer'. Here Mark holds a tin he found in South Africa without appropriate languages on the label, showing that written promises made by Nestlé CEO, Peter Brabeck, were being broken.

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action who has taken part in many debates with Hilary Parsons since 2001, said: 'Nestlé's untrue claims are easily exposed by documentary evidence of malpractice. I presume Hilary Parsons is running away from Mark Thomas, and dismissing him as just an 'entertainer', because she fears media attention.'

The most recent debate between Nestlé and Baby Milk Action took place at a TUC fringe meeting (see press release 10 September 2003).

Ms. Parsons brought along Nestlé's Head of Communications, David Hudson, Senior Policy Advisor, Beverley Mirando, paid Nestlé advisor, Lord Nazir Ahmed, and someone from Shandwick public relations firm, who sat together at the front of the audience.

Without warning, Hilary Parsons, brought paid Nestlé advisor, Lord Nazir Ahmed, and others to back her up at the last debate. Now she claims it would be 'unbalanced' for Mark Thomas to take part in the debate at Nottingham.

Mike Brady said: 'This is yet another example of the dishonesty and incompetence of Nestlé's PR team. It is pathetic for Ms. Parsons to object to Mark Thomas being present when, without warning, she brought a contingent of paid supporters to the debate at the TUC. I didn't object to Lord Ahmed speaking at the TUC debate, I simply addressed the points he made with reference to hard evidence of corrupt company practices and left people in the audience to make up their own minds.'

For further information or to arrange an interview with Mike Brady or Mark Thomas email or call 07986 736179.


  1. Voting figures were as follows:
    Post debate Pre debate
    For : 184 For: 155
    Against: 26 Against: 25
    Abstentions: 28 Abstentions: 47
    Total: 238 Total: 227


  2. On his Channel 4 television programme, Mark Thomas interviewed the Minister of Health from Zimbabwe, who accused Nestlé of 'economic blackmail' for threatening to close its factory if Zimbabwe introduced legislation regulating the marketing of baby foods (see Boycott News 26 and Boycott News 27). Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, gave Mark a written undertaking that labels of all breastmilk substitutes would be in the appropriate language by March 2000. Mark found in a follow-up investigation in South Africa a year later that the promise was being broken. One of the cases featured on the television programme was labelling in Malawi, where the company claimed it was not economically viable to label breastmilk substitutes in Chichewa, the national language. Following the programme, labels were rushed onto the market, but these had been rejected by the Malawian Government as not all warnings were given and the instructions and translations were incorrect (see the Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet March 2000).

  3. Students at Cardinal Newman School were interviewed on BBC Radio 4's 'The Learning Curve' in September 2003 about their reactions to a debate between Nestlé and Baby Milk Action (listen to the programme via our broadcasts section). Students have since had Nestlé products removed from the school. A video of this debate is available. Contact Baby Milk Action for details.

  4. Baby Milk Action's education pack 'Seeing through the spin' contains exercises and resources to assist pupils in understanding public relations strategies. It is available on line.

  5. In May 1999 the UK Advertising Standards Authority upheld all of Baby Milk Action's complaints against a Nestlé anti-boycott advertisement in which the company claimed to market infant formula 'ethically and responsibly.'

  6. Hilary Parsons, Nestlé's Head of Corporate Affairs, provided the following statement: 'We are very happy to debate with Baby Milk Action and in fact have participated in 16 or so debates and meetings with them over the past couple of years. We are therefore very happy to debate at Nottingham with Baby Milk Action however these debates must be fairly conducted .Our issue is not with Mark Thomas but with the fact that one side would be debating with the help of a professional entertainer and the other side without. The controversies surrounding the marketing of infant formula are complicated and involving an entertainer - any entertainer - on one side only would lead to an unbalanced debate. We are sure Baby Milk Action would not be happy if the situation was reversed and a professional entertainer was debating on our side and not theirs.'


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