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Q. Is it true that Nestlé violations are due to staff members "misbehaving" and that the violations are quickly stopped by Nestlé management?

A. (7 May 2002) No. Nestlé violations are institutionalised and systematic and senior management generally attempts to excuse the violations reported to them

An article in The Guardian 'notebook' (29th March 2002) suggested that the Nestlé boycott should be called off stating: "Baby Milk Action can rattle off half a dozen instances of recent violations by Nestlé. The campaign has spotted ads for infant formula on the vans of distributors in Armenia and in parenting magazines in Bulgaria. Nestlé points out that in a workforce of 230,000 some staff are bound to misbehave."

It is regrettable that the normal high standards of journalism shown by The Guardian were not evident in this case. The article is factually inaccurate as the journalists accepted assurances from Nestlé without checking their facts. They have been asked to publish a correction. Far from blaming local staff Nestlé defends blatant violations of the Code and Resolutions. Unfortunately the 'notebook' article has since been used by Nestlé Chief Executive Officer, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, to defend the company at the shareholder meeting and by organisers of the Nestlé sponsored Hay-on-Wye literature festival, which celebrities are planning to boycott (see press release 6 May 2002).

Nestlé CEO, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, seized on the inaccurate Guardian article to divert criticism of Nestlé baby food marketing activities. The issue again dominated the Nestlé shareholder meeting.

The reference to "half a dozen" violations, disregards the systematic violations found during monitoring in 14 countries which are documented in the report Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2001.

Nestlé generally dismisses reports of violations by claiming that the Code and Resolutions have been interpreted incorrectly. This is dishonest. Nestlé has been informed by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), which advises governments on interpreting these measures, that it is its own interpretation which is incorrect (see the response to the question "Nestlé sets out what staff can and cannot do in its 'Infant Formula Marketing Policy'. Is there anything wrong with this?"). In addition, the monitoring evidence demonstrates that Nestlé breaks its own narrower measures.

For example, Nestlé claims that it does not advertise infant formula (though closer reading of Nestlé's "Charter" shows that this undertaking only applies in a list of countries of Nestlé's choosing, rather than in all countries as required by the World Health Assembly measures). One of the examples referred to in the 'notebook' article relates to an infant formula advertisement in Bulgaria. This was featured on Baby Milk Action's Campaign for Ethical Marketing action sheet. See the July/August 2000 action sheet for further details and a scan of the advertisement.

As Nestlé Chief Executive Officer, Mr. Brabeck, claims to investigate any hint of a violation, Baby Milk Action reports violations directly to him. We have not always received responses. In this case there was an answer from a staff member. This did not claim that local staff were "misbehaving" as the 'notebook' article suggests, but attempted to argue that the advertisement was a "scientific article" with a positive public health message.

The "scientific article" preys on a mother's fears. It states in the opening section:

"The mistakes in feeding of nurseling arise most often in cases of lack or insufficiency of mother's milk, when it is necessary to look for an alternative. [Nestlé translation]"

Milk production increases with suckling and a mother experiencing problems needs to be supported in breastfeeding, not immediately directed to a substitute.

The advertisement then asks "Is there a satisfactory equivalent of mother's milk" and suggests that Nestlé Nan infant formula is "identical to mother's milk in biological respects" . Nestlé Nan is specifically named and promoted in the advertisement. While other company products are mentioned, the article, which was headed "Is there a substitute for mothers milk?" stresses the quality of Nestlé products and its over 130 years of experience.

The full text of the attempt to excuse the advertisement, sent by Nestlé Vice-President, Christina Drotz-Jonasson (dated 19 September 2000), is as follows:

The 'advertisement' to which you refer is, in fact, not an advertisement for infant formula, but an article by a respected Pediatrician well known for his support of breast feeding. We suggest you compare the article with genuine advertisements for infant formula of our competitors which are included in '9 months' (Nestlé is the only company not to have commercial advertisements in '9 months' advertising a specific brand of formula).

What you call an advertisement is an article written by Professor Moumdjiev, a leading Bulgarian paediatrician and medical advisor to Nestlé. Professor Moumdjiev is founder of one of the first breastmilk banks in Bulgaria and his 1984 book, Breastmilk and Breastfeeding, underlines the benefits of breastfeeding compared to using breastmilk substitutes. He is an active participant in a team promoting Baby Friendly Hospitals in Bulgaria.

Professor Moumdjiev's science-based article explains why mother's milk is best for babies and concludes with the advice that 'mother's milk will give them [babies] the best start in life. He does point out that infant formula, rather than yoghurt, should be used as a breastmilk substitute and points out the dangers of the common Bulgarian practice of using yoghurt as a breastmilk substitute. In his article Professor Moumdjiev lays out the nutritional content of 3 brands of infant formula (including 2 of our competitors) and states that all of them are roughly equal in nutritional value.

I think you can thus see that the public health message to mothers of this article is a positive one, encouraging breastfeeding and discouraging the use of inappropriate breastmilk substitutes.

Even though no Nestlé infant formula brand is advertised, the featuring of the Nestlé logo in the middle of the article could be questioned, and for that reason we will indicate to Nestlé Bulgaria that future science-based articles of this type should simply include a phrase which indicates that the magazine space was paid for by Nestlé.

It is for health workers to advise parents on infant feeding issues, not Nestlé.

Nestlé HQ sent an official translation of its advertisement, so confident was it that it could defend it as a "scientific article". This shows how in amongst the 'breast is best' type statements, the "eminent paediatrician" is used to idealise and endorse artificial feeding in general and Nestlé infant formula in particular:

"Is there a satisfactory equivalent of mother's milk?.... Yes, at present there are milks that are identical to mother's milk in biological respect and could be used as an alternative... More often than not mothers who are not able to breastfeed their children for various reasons, ask the question: which is 'the best' adapted milk? This question is absolutely pointless because all adapted milks use mother's milk as a standard and that is why their contents, as is clear from the above data, is almost identical... In my capacity of consulting expert of Nestlé I would not write or say that Nan is the best adapted milk for your child, but please believe me that Nestle foods are no way inferior to the other ones because they are being produced for 133 years and the experience and tradition are not to be neglected. Make sure yourselves."

This "scientific article", paid for by Nestlé and written by Nestlé's nutrition expert, violates Article 5.1 of the International Code which states:

"There should be no advertising or other form of promotion to the general public of products within the scope of this Code."

Click here to download a pdf file of Nestlé's translation of its advertisement.

We continued to campaign (and were also campaigning about NUMICO advertisements in the same magazine) and wrote again to Mr. Brabeck pointing out how absurd Nestlé's argument is. We received the following rather disingenuous response on 27th October 2000:

Perhaps I didn't make it clear enough in my last letter that the type of information piece, to which you objected, has been stopped and will not appear again. As I indicated there was a commercial information mixed with the article, and therefore this approach has been discontinued.

We reported on Nestlé's about turn in Boycott News 28. However, despite finally agreeing to stop this promotional practice a report from partners in Bulgaria prompted by the 'notebook' article shows that Nestlé is violating the Code and Resolutions there in other ways today.

This is one example among many, but provides a flavour of what is involved in attempting to stop Nestlé malpractice.

The boycott will continue until Nestlé makes the necessary changes to its baby food marketing policies and practices to bring them into line with the World Health Assembly requirements.

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