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Methodist committee commends Baby Milk Action campaign, but makes ill-judged decision on Nestlé

Press release 24 November 2005

Media coverage: Ekklesia

Baby Milk Action welcomes the Methodist Ethical Investment Committee's commendation given to its work in monitoring Nestlé's baby food marketing activities, but finds its reasoning for investing in Nestlé despite 'areas of ethical concern' is ill-judged and likely to harm rather than help the campaign to protect infant health. In the week that UNICEF is highlighting that 6 million lives are saved through breastfeeding every year, but 2 million are lost needlessly because of infants not being adequately breastfed, it is ironic that this Committee of the Methodist Church should be announcing it has cleared the way for investment of church money in Nestlé, the company which does more than any other to undermine breastfeeding. The Methodist Church has been a strong supporter of the campaign over the years and Nestlé will undoubtedly use the Committee's statement in its attempts to divert criticism.

Mike Brady, Campaigns and Networking Coordinator at Baby Milk Action, who was consulted by the Ethical Investment Committee, said:

"In the face of concerted campaigning and legislation by governments, Nestlé has made some minor changes to its policies in recent years and tries to gain maximum PR advantage from them, while the rest of its aggressive marketing strategies continue. Many infants have died needlessly as it resisted change and many more will die as it remains responsible for more violations of international marketing standards than any other company. The Ethical Investment Committee has demonstrated its misunderstanding of this reality throughout the process and in its final report which labels Nestlé as 'responsive' to the campaign. As such the Committee’s wish to 'engage' with Nestlé by investing church money cannot be welcomed as a positive contribution to the campaign. It is likely to do more harm than good. It is not investors who have forced changes on Nestlé, it is the boycott and legislation. The Central Finance Board is unusual in it excludes companies on the basis of unethical products, not unethical behaviour."

See the notes for the two areas where Nestlé has been forced to change policy in recent years because of the campaign.

The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN - of which Baby Milk Action is the UK member) trains policy makers on the World Health Assembly marketing requirements for baby foods with the support of WHO and UNICEF. Today 60 countries have implemented these measures in legislation and others are in the process of doing so. Over half the world's population has some degree of protection and where legislation is independently monitored and enforced violations are stopped and breastfeeding rates are increasing, leading to reductions in infant mortality and morbidity. Nestlé takes the lead in opposing legislation (see IBFAN's report Using International Tools to Stop Corporate Malpractice - Does it Work? for 7 case studies).

Monitoring published last year, gathered in 69 countries by members of IBFAN found, once again, Nestlé is the worst of the baby food companies for violating the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Subsitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly. Despite the evidence of systematic malpractice and appeals by health experts and other NGOs for the Ethical Investment Committee to take a more objective approach, the Committee's final report suggests, without justification, that Nestlé has taken steps to reduce violations and more serious breaches of the Code have been reduced. Baby Milk Action has been forced to criticise the Committee for flaws in the process and not acknowledging that the so-called 'independent expert' cited in its report was, in fact, a consultant to the baby food industry.

Mike Brady said: "We welcome the support for our work shown by the Methodist Church and, more generally, Methodist members who support the Nestlé boycott. We hope this support will continue and the Central Finance Board will consider the views of the wider church very carefully. Investing - unless a token share that enables you to stand up at the AGM, as Baby Milk Action does each year - is about generating income.  Many will be disgusted if the Central Finance Board of the Methodist Church decides to make a financial gain from Nestle malpractice."

Professor Andrew Tomkins, Centre for International Child Health, Institute of Child Health, London, said on reading the final JACEI report:

"I write as a member of Harpenden Methodist Church and as a doctor having lived in Africa for many years and having been deeply involved in child health research, teaching and care in developing countries for over 30 years. Poor mothers in less developed countries are still being put under pressure from companies to formula feed their infants rather than give them breast milk which provides protection against infection and reduces child mortality. I was sent a draft version of a report outlining the Methodist Church Response in relation to Ethical Investments and Nestle. I was profoundly disturbed by the conclusion and wrote to the Committee. I find it extremely disturbing that an advisory body within my own church, the Methodist church, does not find such marketing processes deeply objectionable and even supports investment in such practices"

While admitting that "there are still areas of ethical concern relating to marketing and promotion of breastmilk substitutes", the JACEI report does not reflect the significance of these issues. Stephen Lewis, when Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, said in 1999: "Those who...make claims about infant formula that intentionally undermine women's confidence in breastfeeding are not to be regarded as clever entrepreneurs just doing their job, but as human rights violators of the worst kind."

For further information contact: Mike Brady, 07986 736179

Click here for the Methodist Church press release. The full report is available from the Methodist Church.

Tribunals into Nestle malpractice

Baby Milk Action is disappointed that the Ethical Investment Committee did not add its voice to those calling for a Tribunal into Nestlé's baby food marketing activities. On 23 November 2005 (yesterday) Nestlé reversed its past opposition to the proposed Tribunal when put on the spot by an interviewer from the University of East Anglia radio station, where a referendum on renewing support for the boycott is currently taking place. Senior Policy Advisor, Beverly Mirando, said that Nestlé is now prepared to consider participating. In the past pressure from the boycott successfully forced Nestlé to drop its opposition to participating in public debates with Baby Milk Action. The Tribunal will allow a more in-depth examination of Nestlé practices, the evidence against it and its defence, with both sides able to call witnesses.

A similar Tribunal into Nestlé human rights abuses in Colombia took place in Bern, Switzerland, on 29 October 2005, organised by a coalition of church organisations, trade unions and political parties. Though Nestlé refused to participate, the involvement of groups such as Bread for All (the Swiss equivalent of Christian Aid) prompted Nestlé to submit a written response, which was considered by an expert panel. A damning ruling was produced after trade unionists spoke of killings of union activists from Nestlé factories. Although these and other concerns are acknowledged in the Ethical Investment Committee report, it suggests these are reasons for engaging in 'dialogue' with Nestlé rather than grounds to exclude it from the Church’s investment portfolio. Interviews from the Swiss Tribunal are available in the broadcasts section.

Notes for Editors

  1. Baby Milk Action's reservations about the process. Baby Milk Action participated in the consultation organised by the JACEI in good faith, but has been disturbed by the apparent bias towards Nestle throughout. For example, the minutes of our presentation required extensive re-writing as they reflected Nestle's misrepresentation of our position, rather than the evidence we had presented. The minutes did not include the comment we requested that the technical advisor was a consultant to the baby food industry. This apparent bias is seen in the final report. For example, all references to violations of the marketing requirements are referred to as 'allegations', although documentary evidence was presented. Indeed, in one case we provided a scan of a leaflet which Nestle categorically told the Committee it had not produced. In contrast the report states as fact: "Nestle has introduced measures aimed at reducing the incidence of such breaches." We presented evidence showing that this is untrue. For example, Nestle's Instructions misrepresent the World Health Assembly requirements (see IBFAN's legal analysis, presented to the Committee). Audits commissioned by Nestle use its own discredited terms of reference and auditors have been forbidden from contacting Baby Milk Action or our partners. Nestle's book of letters from governments showing 'official verification' of compliance was discredited and Nestle had to apologise to authors for misrepresenting letters. And so on. Nestle's measures are aimed at diverting criticism of its activities so that it continue with business as usual, as demonstrated by the monitoring results of what it is actually doing on the ground. The JACEI based its decisions on presentations of just 30 minutes, followed by a short question and answer session. We repeatedly asked the JACEI to support our call for a tribunal into Nestle so greater scrutiny could be given to the issues (see above) but this has been ignored.

  2. Changes won from Nestlé: Labelling of complementary foods. In 1994 the World Health Assembly adopted Resolution 47.5 calling for complementary feeding to be ‘fostered from about 6 months of age’. Baby food companies were expected to stop labelling complementary foods, such as cereal-based foods, before this age. They did not do so. In 1997, UNICEF met with Nestlé Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, and raised this as one of many issues of concern with Nestlé’s policies and practices, putting some of these in writing. Still Nestlé did not change its labels. IBFAN monitoring recorded on-going violations of the 1994 Resolution. In 2000 such practices were examined by the European Parliament in a Public Hearing into Nestlé practices in Pakistan. In 2001 the World Health Assembly adopted a further Resolution stressing its recommendation of exclusive breastfeeding until 6 months of age. 70 governments had introduced the ‘6 months’ policy in national measures. Then, during Baby Milk Action’s campaign of demonstrations around the country at Nestlé factories in 2003, Nestlé’s Head of Corporate Affairs, Hilary Parsons, finally wrote to Baby Milk Action saying Nestlé would comply. Ignoring the 9 year campaign required to force this decision, Nestlé publicly proclaimed it was 'taking the initiative’.

  3. Changes won from Nestlé: Labelling language. In 1999 Mark Thomas exposed Nestlé’s failure to label products in the correct language for the country where they were sold, drawing on Baby Milk Action’s campaign material. Chief Executive, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, confronted by Mark, said the company would change its labels, 19 years after the International Code made this a requirement. Monitoring shows this has still not been done everywhere.

  4. Ethical investment : Nestlé is excluded from every ethical investment list in the world, such as the FTSE4Good. As far as Baby Milk Action is aware, there is just one exception, Swedish firm GES Ethical Standard listed Nestlé in 2004 after accepting ‘clarifications’ from the company. When Baby Milk Action asked for further information, we were directed to Nestlé’s own discredited public relations materials as proof that the company had changed. We asked GES if it will examine the evidence of what Nestlé does, not just what it says, and review its decision, but it refused (see Update 35). Although GES is unique in refusing to consider independent monitoring and in listing Nestlé, it is perhaps unsurprising that it is the list to which Nestlé refers. Now the JACEI decision will no doubt be exploited in the same way, without reference to the qualifications given in the report.

  5. The 1992 Methodist Conference adopted a resolution which: 'reaffirms its support of the action taken by the Division of Social Responsibility through Baby Milk Action in Britain and IBFAN internationally and urges Methodists to inform themselves about the issues involved and to share in bringing pressure to bear on the relevant manufactures - Nestle in Britain particularly." Resolutions were also adopted in 1999 and 2000. The 2000 Resolution backtracked after a confused report was presented to conference and states: "The Conference is not aligned with either side in the disputes between Baby Milk Action and Nestle, which have been going on for more than 25 years; the Conference encourages Methodists, local churches and Methodist groups to study all the issues and to act accordingly." Those that do study the issues soon become aware this is not a dispute between Baby Milk Action and Nestle, but the health and human rights community and Nestle over Nestle's failure to abide by World Health Assembly marketing requirements.

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