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The Other Davos meeting – NGOs expose Nestlé baby food pushing, trade union busting and spying

Holding Nestlé to account – Lessons from the baby food campaign

Patti Rundall OBE, Policy Director, Baby Milk Action (member of IBFAN). (Check against delivery).

Media briefing 30 January 2009, 18:00 GMT+1, Kongresshaus, Zurich.

According to Nestlé’s Global Public Affairs Manager, Nestlé is ‘widely boycotted’. An independent poll has found the company to be one of the four most boycotted on the planet. As we know from our colleagues here today and around the world, there are many reasons why people are critical of Nestlé. The boycott that Baby Milk Action promotes, and is perhaps the best known, is over concerns about the way Nestlé pushes baby milk or formula.

Nestlé was founded on infant formula, though the product that Henri Nestlé produced in 1867, a mixture of milk and flour, we now consider as dangerous to give to babies. Nestlé claimed it saved the life of a child and within just a few years an international business was born, selling Nestlé farine lactee around the world as a premier food for babies, meeting their nutritional needs and trusted by doctors, so they claimed. So began the undermining of breastfeeding for corporate profit and a consequent rise in what came to be known as ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’ – malnutrition resulting from commerce.

If a child is not breastfed it loses the protection provided by breastfeeding. Rather than gaining the antibodies and other factors through breastmilk produced by a mother in response to infections in the environment, the child is subjected to the infections directly, if water and equipment is not sterile. Powdered milk itself is not sterile and can contain harmful bacteria, and so needs careful preparation.

According to UNICEF : "Improved breastfeeding practices and reduction of artificial feeding could save an estimated 1.5 million children a year."

This is a stark statistic. Behind each death is a story of suffering, often chronic diarrhoea, dehydration and malnutrition. Those that survive may still have their development compromised.

Even in the best conditions in industrialized countries, infants who are not breastfed are at greater risk of short and long-term illness.

These facts are well-known. UNICEF says they are not in dispute. Yet, all the same, Nestlé promotes its formula with claims that it, the formula, provides protection.

Nestle shelf talker

This is from a supermarket advertising campaign in South Africa recently, promoting Nestlé’s NEW formula. This campaign and claims made on the labels have been criticised as breaches of South African regulations.

According to the Department of Health last year : “statements such as “optimal physical and mental development”, “activate your baby’s immune defences” and “strengthen your baby’s natural defences” as indicated on the labels are just some examples of prohibited statements on NAN 1 and 2.”

Formula does not protect or provide for optimal physical and mental development. Such marketing practices are misleading and dangerous.

There will, however, be times when breastfeeding is not possible, the case of orphans being an obvious example. So formula is a legitimate product, but one which must be marketed appropriately.

Thanks to the campaigns run by Baby Milk Action and our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), marketing requirements have been introduced by the World Health Assembly. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was introduced in 1981 and there have been further Resolutions since.

The Code and Resolutions prohibit the promotion of breastmilk substitutes and give health workers responsibility for advising parents. Companies are limited to providing scientific and factual information.

IBFAN, which today consists of more than 200 groups in over 100 countries, monitors companies against the Code and Resolutions around the world. We put pressure on companies to stop violations by publishing summary reports of violations every three years or so . In these reports Nestlé has time and again been found to be the worst of the companies. It sets trends that others follow.

In Asia companies recently purchased by Danone are particularly aggressive in trying to compete with Nestlé. The signs are that Danone’s takeover is making things worse, not better and we are trying to persuade it to change so as to avoid consumer action, similar to the Nestlé boycott. The clock is ticking for Danone.

Nestlé and other companies are called on by the World Health Assembly to abide by the Code and Resolutions independently of government action. They do not. Nestlé is responsible for systematic violations that contribute to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants. The boycott helps to expose malpractice and has forced some changes, but violations continue.

IBFAN works for legislation implementing the Code and Resolutions. We provide training to policy makers and support governments when their efforts to introduce laws come under attack, as happened to the Philippines recently.

In 2006 the pharmaceutical companies took the Philippines government to the Supreme Court in an attempt to have new regulations revoked. The US Chamber of Commerce threatened to disinvest from the country if the regulations stood. Nestlé tried to have the country heads of WHO and UNICEF removed for speaking of the need to protect breastfeeding.

Legislation can be effective and we have some good success stories of violations being stopped and breastfeeding rates increasing, such as in Brazil and India. But it is hard work and progress is slow. And when laws are introduced, they have to be defended and enforced.

At the international level there is a regulation gap.

Nestlé has signed up to the principles of the United Nations Global Compact. As such it should be respecting human rights. Respect for the International Code and Resolutions falls within this.

Yet Nestlé is not only able to break its undertakings to the UN Global Compact with apparent impunity, the UN Global Compact has become an integral part of its strategy for continuing business as usual. The Global Compact is part of its public relations strategy for diverting attention from its on-going malpractice. This is not only true in the area of baby food marketing, but other areas, such as labour disputes, environmental impact and child slavery in its cocoa supply chain, for example.

Nestlé produces publications, such as its Shared Value report, available on the UN Global Compact website, boasting of its compliance with the Global Compact principles . These reports are not verified by the Global Compact office. They are not routinely weighed against the evidence to the contrary.

Despite the lack of assessment, the UN Global Compact Office was joint host of the launch of the report. Nestlé claims :

Nestlé’s Corporate Business Principles guide our behaviour in relation to all relevant stakeholders. They reflect the basic ideas of fairness, honesty and respect for people and the environment in all our business actions. Their ongoing evolution has seen the inclusion of the 10 UN Global Compact (UNGC) Principles on human rights, labour, the environment and corruption in 2002. Examples that illustrate our compliance with, and support for, these Principles are contained in our Creating Shared Value report. Nestlé’s further support for the UNGC was demonstrated in July 2007 through its patron sponsorship of the UN Global Compact Leaders’ Summit in Geneva.

We know the section on baby food marketing is not accurate. Colleagues working on other areas of Nestlé malpractice analysed other sections and joined us in issuing a press release raising some of the facts that Nestlé neglects to mention in this report.

Today I would like to appeal to anyone who has concerns about Nestlé malpractice to make contact with Baby Milk Action so collectively we can draw attention to the gaps and the factual errors in Nestlé’s reports.

I invite you to join with those campaigners who are contributing to the Nestlé Critics website. This was launched last year, during International Nestlé-Free Week, which baby milk campaigners promote. It serves as a portal for information on Nestlé malpractice. Nestlé threatened us with legal action just days before the launch of this website, in an attempt to hi-jack it . We refused to hand over the domain name and the launch went ahead. Please visit the website, publicise it and, if you have expert knowledge to contribute, make contact with us.

For many years, Nestlé has been a leading proponent of voluntary self-regulatory schemes at national level and at international level. Such as the UN Global Compact.

It also tries to present itself as an essential partner to governments and United Nations bodies by offering sponsorship and joint schemes, which, at the very least aim to portray the company as trustworthy and ethical and frequently promote its brands and products as well.

We have learned over the years, the depths that Nestlé will go to protect its interests. The spying case exposed recently is perhaps particularly blatant, but it is not surprising.

One strategy Nestlé uses is recruiting celebrities to defend it. A recent example is George Clooney, who appears in Nespresso advertisements. When people have raised with him concerns about Nestlé malpractice, his office has provided a briefing produced by Nestlé. This briefing is extremely dishonest. We have an exposé of it available, but I will take just one example to illustrate.

In the briefing Nestlé provided to Mr. Clooney, the company claims in its defence that the Methodist Church has invested in the company as it sees no ethical barrier to doing so. Nestlé wants people to believe that the Church and Nestlé critics have conflicting views of Nestlé practices.

The Methodist Church Central Finance Board statement on Nestlé explains why it invested:

JACEI [the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics in Investment] acknowledges and respects the work of organisations such as Baby Milk Action in highlighting the scandal of inappropriate marketing of breast milk substitutes. The way in which the CFB responds to such activities is to engage with company managements and seek change from within. These approaches should be seen as complementary strategies working to achieve a common aim.

Prior to the investment, the 2006 Methodist Conference adopted texts that suggested ‘engagement’ and the ‘boycott’ go hand in hand:

JACEI acknowledges the continuing concern with regard to some aspects of Nestlé’s interpretation of the International Code, the implementation of company guidelines and the transparency of the procedures for monitoring compliance. These concerns may cause some through conscience to maintain a consumer boycott of Nestlé products.

So George Clooney was misled by Nestlé. Church investment is intended to press the company to stop malpractice. It is not, as Nestlé wants people to believe, a reward for good behaviour. Indeed, the Methodist Church Conference stated that it sees ‘engagement’ and the ‘boycott’ as complementary strategies.

I would, therefore, like to appeal to Mr. Clooney to look at little closer at this issue before sending out Nestlé’s briefing to anyone else. Nestlé does not tell the truth about its activities and its claims cannot be taken at face value. The evidence that we and others have tried to provide to him, show that the reality on the ground tells a different story.

We can change that reality. National legislation is stopping baby food marketing malpractice in some countries. The boycott can force changes. When journalists in the media use their investigative skills to expose and shame Nestlé, some have found the company backs down. All this helps to save lives and reduce avoidable suffering.

Collectively campaigners need to use their experience and evidence to expose the failings of the self-regulatory UN Global Compact to hold corporations to account. To end I will repeat my invitation to campaigners to join us in calling on the UN Global Compact to take action or to be replaced with a system that works to protect those who suffer as a result of Nestlé’s actions.

Thank you.

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