|Fear of censure from the Church of England prompts hasty Nestlé U-Turn.
Baby Milk Action welcomes the Resolution passed this week by the General Synod of the Church of England calling on companies and governments to abide by the International Code and other resolutions on infant feeding passed by the World Health Assembly.
The Synod Resolution follows on from research commissioned as part of the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring, a group of 27 UK academic, health and development bodies. The Synod affirmed the conclusions of the report Cracking the Code which were that "many companies are violating the Code in a systematic rather than one off manner."
Nestlé, the company
with the largest share of the world baby milk market, and the
subject of an 18-country international boycott, was clearly worried
that the Church would criticise it by name once again and enlisted
support for its display from staff from the USA and Thailand.(1)
Representatives from other baby food companies were also present.
In a Nestlé statement distributed to Synod members just
before the debate the company made a remarkable U-turn, declaring
its support for the motion proposed by Dr Christine Baxter on
behalf of the Standing Committee. This motion acknowledged the
legal status of resolutions of the WHA and called on governments
and companies to abide by them. Baby Milk Action and its partners
in the worldwide network IBFAN
have been calling on the baby food industry to acknowledge the
validity of resolutions and abide by them for many years. Baby
Milk Action has written to Nestlé's CEO in Switzerland,
Peter Brabeck, to ask how the company will bring its marketing
into line - a move which will involve radical changes in current
Meanwhile, Mike Tyrell, Chair of the Christian Ethical Investment group, will be writing to Sir Michael Coleman, Chairman of the Ethical Investment Working group, requesting him to ask Church bodies with share holdings in baby food companies to adopt proper management and audit arrangements which would identify and correct violations of the International Code and the resolutions. Nestlé has no such system in operation and despite reports of thousands of violations, says it has never had reason to discipline any staff member for violating the International Code. The Church's investment policy on this issue could also come under scrutiny from the Board for Social Responsibility. The policy, managed by the Church Commissioners, now seems very different from the position expressed by Synod.
Before the debate Nestlé representatives were denying allegations of promotion in Thailand, claiming that samples reported were provided as part of a Government scheme for HIV+ mothers and that Nestlé was actually responsible for rescuing rather than harming infant health. Yet according to UNICEF Thailand the Government registered only 2% of mothers as HIV+, yet over 25% of mothers reported receiving free samples (15% of which were from Nestlé). A number of speakers picked up on this, including the Bishop of Coventry, who explained that only last week UNICEF had visited a hospital which receives 900 tins of formula free of charge each month from 8 companies [including Nestlé], that the donations had nothing to do with HIV and were not part of a Government programme.
Mr Ian Smith of York, gave his account of the company's ethics: "As one the members of Synod from York, where we have a significant Nestlé presence, I was invited, before the last debate on this subject in 1994, to meet some of their directors to discuss the issue. At that time they freely admitted that they were the market leaders of a trade that was being mishandled in some parts of the world. I observed that this resulted in many thousands of infant deaths. The response was that if they didn't sell the product someone else would. We've heard that line with regard to landmines recently: In other words, it's better that they're killed by our products rather than someone else's. Nestlé admitted that the business has its unethical side, but they still push it hard. They say they will stop - if others do too."
Proposing a reinstatement of the boycott, Dr Hugh James from the Leicester Diocese said of the research, "Now I know that the companies concerned have criticised the interagency group's report. They dislike not being told what would happen and when. Well, they would wouldn't they? They were found wanting. Like a driver caught speeding who then complains that the automatic cameras weren't visible enough....Cracking the Code does demonstrate that the breastmilk substitute manufacturers, with significant frequency, failed to follow the standards they claim to espouse. If Nestlé abides by the guidelines, who manufactured the Nestlé samples which were found? Who printed the Nestlé publicity material?"
Although 6 of the 8 speakers
called spoke strongly of Nestlé's unethical behaviour,
Dr James's motion was not carried. It was strongly opposed by
Dr Baxter, speaking on behalf of the Standing Committee, on the
grounds that Nestlé was not the only company to violate
the Code and that the Committee was unwilling to devote more time
and resources to establishing the validity of allegations. It
should be remembered that the Synod was considering only the evidence
from 4 cities contained in Cracking the Code, rather than
the global reports carried out by IBFAN, which to date have shown
that Nestlé is responsible for the largest number of violations
and is most actively involved in undermining legislation implementing
the International Code. Discussions continue in IBFAN
as to the feasibility of extending the international boycott to
other major culprits, such as Wyeth, Abbott Ross, Mead Johnson,
Gerber and Nutricia, some of whom are already the target of country
boycotts. The Nestlé Boycott
will continue until monitoring demonstrates compliance for a period
of 18 months.
For further information contact Baby Milk Action head office:
Baby Milk Action, 23 St Andrew's St, Cambridge CB2 3AX, UK.
T: +44 (0)1223 464420
The decision by the General Synod to endorse the International Nestlé boycott in 1991 had an enormous positive impact on the campaign for ethical marketing. Sales of Nescafé fell by 3% and the world-wide movement to support breastfeeding and protect infant health was given a tremendous boost.
Nestlé's reaction was to attempt to discredit the allegations rather than carry out the necessary changes to its marketing practices. In 1994 it mounted an expensive and much criticised public relations exercise at the General Synod which prompted Synod to suspend the boycott while gathering independent information about Nestlé's marketing practices. Cracking the Code was produced as a result.