A Nestlé/Baby Milk Action debate on Nestlé baby food marketing
3 November 2004
A debate between Nestlé and Baby Milk Action took place at Edinburgh University on 3 November 2004. The Students Association has supported the Nestlé boycott over the past two decades. In the past Nestlé refused to even speak on its baby food marketing practices if Baby Milk Action was present in the room, but pressure from the boycott has forced it to respond to its critics in debates since March 2001.
A Student Association meeting attended by about 500 students following the debate considered a motion which would have cancelled the boycott. The move to end the boycott was overwhelmingly defeated. For a report of the debate in the student newspaper, click here.
Hilary opened the debate speaking to the motion 'This house believes the boycott of Nestlé should be rescinded.' Her arguments were the same as at previous debates. She claims:
Debates like this did not take place in the past. Nestlé refused to even speak in public about its baby food marketing malpractice if Baby Milk Action was in the room. The reason that has changed, the reason Hilary is here today, is because of pressure from the boycott. Since March 2001, I have taken part in many similar debates with Nestlé (click here for a report on the first debate).
I would like to say it is a pleasure to debate with Nestlé, but having taken part in a number over the past three years I am rather frsutrated hearing the same dishonest comments from Nestlé time and again.
Nestlé knows exactly what it is doing. It knows the impact of its aggressive marketing of baby foods. It knows about the needless death and suffering that results from the company's pursuit of profit. But Nestlé's primary objective is making money and keeping its shareholders happy. For Nestlé it is worth employing its anti-boycott team and their expert advisors from the Webber Shandwick public relations firm to try to convince you the company does nothing wrong so they can carry on with business as usual.
This is why the boycott is important. Nestlé hates it. It hates the lost sales. It hates the way the boycott keeps Nestlé malpractice in the public eye.
Nestlé is the world's largest food company. It sets out to be the biggest player in any market it enters. It controls the largest share of the global baby food market (click here for Corporate Watch's profile of Nestlé). It is the most aggressive of the companies in attempting to convince mothers and health workers to favour artificial feeding over breastfeeding. What is a matter of increasing profits to Nestlé is a matter of life and death of infants in some parts of the world.
Where water is unsafe an artificially fed child is up to 25 times more likely to die as a result of diarrhoea than a breastfed child. Not only is the child at risk of infections in the water, it is denied the protection provided by breastmilk, a living substance containing antibodies and other anti-infective properties. In all countries artificially-fed infants are more prone to illness. In poor countries where there isn't the same access to health care, it can be a matter of life and death (click here for IBFAN's briefing on what scientific research says).
As the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) has stated:
Nestlé disputes the facts and does not tell the truth. What you have heard from Hilary is dishonest. Nice as the members of the Nestlé anti-boycott team may be as individuals their job is to deceive you.
So why believe me? In a moment I will show you documentary evidence of Nestlé malpractice. But first please consider this. If Nestlé claims it is doing nothing wrong, there is little we can do about it. When possible we have hauled them before the authorities. When the company published an anti-boycott advertisement claiming to market infant formula 'ethically and responsibly' we complained to the Advertising Standards Authority and every single one of our complaints was upheld (click here for details of the complaints and here for the final ruling and here for the Chief Executive's response).
Unfortunately only advertisements are required to be 'legal, decent, honest and truthful.' Today Nestlé and the materials they have brought can be 'indecent, dishonest and untruthful' and there is no way I can bring them in front of a judge.
I, on the other hand, tell you Nestlé is corrupt. That it is violating international standards. That is has bribed doctors. That it has threatened governments. If I was not telling the truth I could be sued for defamation. Nestlé has its PR consultant from Webber Shandwick recording what I am saying. Nestlé has never taken legal action against Baby Milk Action, because they know they would lose. It is as simple as that. They have lots of well paid lawyers, and sometimes use them to threaten journalists to try to keep the facts out of the media. Famously the Independent ran a headline 'Nestlé sends in the lawyers' when it was on the receiving end of Nestlé bullying, but ran its story anyway (click here for details and links to on-line versions of The Independent's stories). The facts are well documented. Our case is solid.
Faced with a corrupt company with a £39 billion turnover, the boycott is a valuable tool. The boycott began in 1977 and was instrumental in bringing about the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, which was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. The Assembly is the world's highest health policy setting body, consisting of the world's health ministers. The Code does not ban breastmilk substitutes, but sets out how they can be marketed. It aims to protect breastfeeding and to ensure that breasmilk substitutes are used safely if necessary.
Did Nestlé comply when the Code was introduced? No. Pressure from the boycott continued and in 1984 Nestlé promised boycott coordinators it would abide by the Code. It broke its promise and the boycott was relaunched in 1988.
The boycott has helped to wring some changes from Nestlé. The Code requires labels to be in the appropriate language for the country where the products are sold. Not an unreasonable request. Though Nestlé refused to change labels in Malawi, claiming 'cost constraints' did not make it economically viable as the market was small (click here for details and here for the reaction of the Chief Executive to Baby Milk Action's campaign on this violation).
In Sri Lanka, when Beverley Mirando, another member of the anti-boycott team and Nestlé's Senior Policy Advisor, was a legal officer, Nestlé challenged the government's requirement that labels be in 3 languages even though Nestlé does this in its home country of Switzerland. Beverley has claimed in the past Nestlé's comments were part of a consultation. This is not true. We ran a campaign in support of the Sri Lankan government and now Nestlé labels products in 3 languages - not because it is ethical, but because it was given no choice (click here for details).
On his travels since, Mark has kept his eyes open and found several times that Mr. Brabeck did not keep his promise (click here for an example).
One of the issues has been labelling complementary foods for use from too early an age. In 1994 the World Health Assembly adopted a Resolution saying complementary feeding should be fostered from about 6 months. Did Nestlé comply and stop labelling complementary foods for use from 4 months or younger? No. In 1997 UNICEF wrote to Nestlé setting out many of the areas where Nestlé fails to comply with the Code and the subsequent Resolutions. One issue being complementary foods. Did Nestlé comply? Did it change its labels? No. In 2001 the World Health Assembly adopted a further Resolution re-stating its recommendation. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months. Did Nestlé change its labels? No. Last year we had demonstrations around the country over the course of a week. This brought the issue on to the Radio 4 Today programme. During the course of the week, Hilary wrote to us and said Nestlé would change its labels.
Nestlé hasn't changed its labels everywhere (click here for details of the continuing campaign), but we have made progress. Why? Not because Nestlé is ethical, but because it was publicly shamed and given no choice.
Most of the issues addressed in UNICEF's 1997 letter remain unresolved (click here to download a pdf version of UNICEF's letter to Nestlé). Issues raised at a public hearing into Nestlé malpractice by the European Parliament in November 2000 remain unresolved (click here for details, including UNICEF's Legal Officer's presentation on interpretation of the Code and Resolutions).
The monitoring we conduct with our partners in the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) shows malpractice remains widespread and Nestlé is the worst of the baby food companies. IBFAN consists of over 200 groups in more than 100 countries. Our latest monitoring report, Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2004, launched at the House of Commons in May this year (click here for the press release which links to the full report), has results from 69 countries.
Companies are permitted to give health workers scientific and factual information. It is for health workers to advise parents. Nestlé claims it complies with the restriction that information is restricted to scientific and factual information. Not true.
Nestlé tries to cloud the issue with discussion of HIV. There is a risk of HIV being transmitted through breastfeeding (click here for details). The World Health Assembly has adopted a Resolution addressing this and saying relative risks should be considered and that mothers infected with HIV should be allowed to make their decision free from commercial pressure (Click here for World Health Assembly Resolution 54.2 adopted in 2001). Has Nestlé complied? No. It set up a nutrition institute in Southern Africa to promote formula use (click here for further information).
Nestlé has distributed pamphlets for its Pelargon formula, which is being used in HIV interventions in Botswana. One pamphlet (above) suggests the formula helps to prevent diarrhoea. This type of promotion encourages health workers and mothers to use the formula in any case of diarrheoa - yet children fed on the formula are at greater risk of diarrhoea than breastfed infants.
In South Africa and elsewhere Nestlé and the industry have argued that laws regulating the marketing of breastmilk substitutes should be scrapped so information can be provided to HIV-infected mothers. Advertising is not information. UNICEF has stated the marketing restrictions are more important in the context of HIV, but this corrupt company has spotted an opportunity to crow-bar open the systems that have been put in place to protect a mothers right to independent information (see UNICEF's presentation to the European Public Hearing into Nestlé, November 2000).
Most of our work is with policy makers, working to bring the Code and Resolutions into legislation. Where there is independently monitored and enforced legislation, breastfeeding rates are increasing which leads to lower infant mortality and morbidity. Nestlé can make changes when it is given no choice to do so. Where Nestlé's lobbying has succeeded in blocking legislation - and Nestlé is the worst of the companies in threatening governments - it is business as usual. Even in poor countries such as Bolivia and Kenya where the market is small, Nestlé and the baby food industry has opposed legislation and violates the marketing requirements. The use of feeding bottles is surprisingly high-25% in Bolivia and 18% in Kenya, though few mothers can afford to use formula safely (click here for IBFAN's report Using International Tools to Stop Corporate Malpratice: Does it Work?).
The result of this aggressive promotion too often leads to this (for copyright reasons this picture cannot be displayed on the website - see the broadcast section for recent investigative television documentaries showing the impact of aggressive promotion and unsafe infant feeding). This picture is from Stern magazine who investigated evidence from Syed Aamar Raza, a former Nestlé Pakistan employee who blew the whistle releasing documents proving management bribed doctors and pushed staff to hit sales targets.
Did Nestlé investigate and make changes? No, it commissioned a company to produce a report saying Nestlé did nothing wrong. It paid for Lord Nazir Ahmed to visit Pakistan and claim the company was clean - then a couple of years later took Lord Ahmed on as a paid consultant (click here to listen to a head-to-head interview with Mike Brady and Lord Ahmed). Nestlé claims Aamar tried to blackmail the company. We have repeatedly asked Nestlé and Hilary, Nestlé's Head of Corporate Affairs, either to provide the evidence they claim to have to substantiate their claims so Aamar can defend himself, or to drop their claim that he tried to blackmail the company. Hilary claims Nestlé has a tape recording of a telephone conversation, but refuses to release it. Aamar claims this is because in the telephone conversation Nestlé executives were attempting to bribe him to keep silent. Aamar does not have the resources to fight this serious, but unsubstantiated, charge against him. Aamar remains in exile from Pakistan, fearful of returning after shots were fired at his house, and hasn't seen his wife and children for 5 years (For further information and to support Aamar's campaign see http://www.supportaamirraza.org/).
I don't enjoy these debates. The deceit, the denials from Nestlé sicken me. We want this resolved. We have put a plan to Nestlé for ending the boycott. Nestlé has rejected it.
I don't know what the story is behind your boycott motion next week. Nestlé is desparate to break the boycott. I know at one university at least Nestlé has offered to renovate a coffee bar if the Student Union drops its support for the boycott.
We haven't called the boycott off. It remains essential. Your support makes a difference. Cancelling the boycott will undermine the campaign and will be used by Nestlé as it lobbies other student unions.
Nestlé has lost every one of the debates we have had, reducing the argument against the boycott to 'freedom to eat Kit-Kat'. Those who protest at having to walk 50 metres to buy Nestlé products off campus should consider a flaw in the 'freedom of choice' argument. There are many producers of coffee and confectionery. The Student Association outlets cannot stock every possibility to give 'freedom of choice'. There will always have to be some selection of what products to stock, so stocking Nestlé rather than one of its competitors is imposing a product range on users of the outlets as much as supporting the boycott.
Nestlé will use a decision to drop the boycott in its attack on the campaign to protect infant health. We know from experience that Nestlé will not highlight the argument came down to 'freedom of choice', it will dishonestly imply the case for the boycott is no longer valid. I hope I have demonstrated today that the boycott remains as important as ever.
Of course you can support the boycott as individuals and I encourage you to do so. Members of the Student Association have every right to decide what is and is not stocked in your outlets. Supporting the boycott collectively obviously has great impact.
Infants have been dying unnecessarily while we have been debating. This isn't about chocolate and the right to eat Kit-Kat. It is about the life and death of children around the world. It is about holding this corrupt company to account. I ask you to support the boycott.
After the opening statements, Hilary suggested that calling her comments deceitful and highlighting her role in Syed Aamar Raza's case constituted a personal attack. Mike responded by saying that he holds Nestlé responsible for its corrupt practices. At the same time, a corporation is made up of people and it is entirely correct to state that Hilary, the Head of Corporate Affairs (though she did admit to her senior position in introducing herself), was making demonstrably untrue statements in an attempt to divert criticism so the company could carry on with business as usual. And Hilary is the UK executive who has denied Aamar the opportunity to defend himself against the serious allegation of blackmail by refusing to release the alleged tape recording referred to above.
During questions, Hilary repeatedly ignored the fact that Nestlé's interpretation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions is at odds with the position of the World Health Assembly and UNICEF. She suggested that Baby Milk Action meet with Nestlé to resolve 'differences in interpretation' and that a boycott is counter-productive and confrontational. Mike responded by reminding Hilary that they have on-going correspondence. This correspondence and the debates have demonstrated Nestlé's refusal to accept the ground rules of the Code and Resolutions. It is not for Baby Milk Action to undermine WHA and UNICEF by negotiating with Nestlé, it is for Baby Milk Action to do all it can to persuade Nestlé to accept the WHA and UNICEF position.
Mike proposed that a longer duration public meeting be held where there would be sufficient time to go through all issues in detail before a suitable expert panel. The question of who is correct over interpretation could be addressed by calling expert witnesses (such as UNICEF's Legal Officer who attended the November 2000 European Parliament Public Hearing into Nestlé - Nestlé refused to attend, objecting to UNICEFand IBFAN's presence). The evidence of malpractice could be reviewed. The role of aggressive marketing in contributing to the unnecessary death and suffering of infants and young children could be considered.
Hilary did not accept this suggestion.
In the debate pre-vote only 3 people voted in favour of Nestlé and there were 13 abstentions, with about 70 against the proposal to end the boycott. After the debate there were still only 3 people in favour of Nestlé. The number of abstentions fell to 3. Some people had left the room which may have had an impact on these figures. For a report of the debate in the student newspaper, click here.
A 'freedom of choice' motion was proposed at the Student Association meeting a week after the debate. This would have cancelled the boycott. The meeting was attended by 500 students who voted overwhelmingly against the motion. The boycott at Edinburgh University stays.
To move things forward, individuals and organisations are encouraged to send a message along the following lines to: Hilary Parsons, Head of Corporate Affairs, Nestlé (UK). St. George's House, Croydon, CR9 1NR (Fax: 0208 667 5440). Please send a copy to Baby Milk Action, 23 St. Andrew's Street, Cambridge, CB2 3AX (Fax: 01223 464417 E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org):