Nestle’s spot of self-publicity in the “special promotional section” of this paper earlier this month plumbed new depths of insidiousness in its bid to cast the Swiss multinational as a roving philanthropist.
The 25.4cm column touted the release of the company’s “Creating Shared Value” report, which detailed “the impact of its business activities on the environment and society across the world.”
Naturally, the conclusions of this “research” were uniformly positive.
It is invariably those most in need of an image makeover that employ such risible spin: the oil, tobacco and pharmaceutical industries. In the West, Nestle was at one time synonymous with shoddy corporate ethics.Though it has been somewhat successful in avoiding the international spotlight in recent years, nothing has changed.
For many years now I have avoided Nestle’s products – no mean feat given their ubiquity and the company’s habit of using microscopic print and strategically inconspicuous logo placement on some of them. .
The campaign against Nestle’s aggressive tactics in promoting the use of milk formula, which culminated in the Nestle boycott of 1977, has never really abated.
The boycott led the World Health Assembly (WHA) to promulgate the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes four years later.
And, while Nestle agreed to abide by the code nearly 25 years ago, campaigners have solid evidence the company continues to breach it to this day. The International Babyfood Action Network (IBAN) says Nestle is responsible for more violations than any other company.
A study published in the British Medical Journal in 2003 found Nestle in contravention of the code on multiple fronts in west Africa. The corporation continued to give free samples to health clinics in developing countries and flouted the code’s labeling standards, which include stressing the benefits of breastfeeding and giving instructions on how to prepare formula safely.
Confronting these accusations on its Web site, Nestle states that, while it “agrees in principle” with the 1994 WHA resolution calling for a complete ban on free samples and supplies to clinics, it “also agrees with the way many governments have implemented this resolution, allowing donations for orphans, multiple births and disaster relief.”
Multiple births? Disaster relief? That’s quite a bit of leeway given most of the citations of unethical conduct refer to instances in some of the world’s poorest and most unstable nations.
One of the countries examined was Taiwan’s ally Burkina Faso, where, the study said, child mortality is among the highest in the world and “sub-optimal breastfeeding is the underlying cause of ... over 6,200 infant deaths [11 percent of infant mortality].”
Burkina Faso has legislation on the promotion of breastmilk substitutes, but few of the healthcare professionals interviewed for the study understood the regulations, making them just another set of “recommendations” for Nestle to ignore.
Researchers also discovered that the giving of free gifts, clearly prohibited under the code, was widespread. What’s more, most of these items (generally stationery) were emblazoned with company logos.
Taiwanese doctors who have worked in the region know very well how relentlessly formula producers push their products. Chen Chih-fu (陳志福), a doctor who spent 13 years in West Africa and has led numerous medical missions there, said that despite their best efforts, healthcare workers were fighting a losing battle.
“In Europe nobody buys the milk,” he said. “They just send it all to Africa.”
Elsewhere, as the Guardian reported last year, Nestle and other manufacturers exploit loopholes in the system. In Bangladesh, for example, healthcare personnel are given notepads with tear-off sheets that look like promotional leaflets. The ban on direct advertising to mothers is one of the code’s most important points, yet when doctors hand these sheets out they tacitly endorse Nestle’s products. And there are incentives for playing ball: One doctor recalled Nestle representatives bringing him a cake for New Year.
In Bangladesh, more than 300 children are estimated to die every day as a result of ignorance of the dangers of breastmilk substitutes. The charity Save the Children believes the figure could be close to 4,000 per day worldwide. The main problem is diarrhea caused by the contaminated water that is inevitably used in mixing formula, but other problems include a lack of information on how to prepare formula and help for mothers who are having trouble breastfeeding.
In Taiwan, in most cases, the issue is not a matter of life or death. Nevertheless, the excessive promotion of formula is pervasive and obvious. The point is, breastmilk is better — a fact that even Nestle admits.
Human milk is pretty complex and despite the billions they pour into research and development, formula producers have yet to properly replicate its nutritional qualities. The protein content is better suited to a baby’s metabolism, the fat content more easily absorbed and the milk more easily digested. A mother’s milk also contains antibodies, cells from her immune system and proteins to combat bacterial and viral infections.
My wife, who had problems producing enough milk to breastfeed our first child, used a breast pump to stimulate lactation. When this laborious process still proved insufficient, there was not much in the way of encouragement or education.
Local pharmacists were fervent in their promotion of formula, with some saying it was “better” than breastmilk. They were also suspiciously wont to promote specific brands and warn against switching to others.
“Some doctors even tell women that human milk is not good,” Chen said.
Last year the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times’ sister newspaper) reported that Chen Chao-huei (陳昭惠), chairperson of the Taiwan Academy of Breastfeeding, had called on the Department of Health (DOH) to look into “companies’ collaboration with drugstore owners to promote formula milk.”
This came in light of a directive from the DOH that companies can no longer use pregnant women and mothers of newborn babies in advertisements. The use of celebrities and “unqualified spokespeople” was also outlawed.
Still, the IBAN claims Nestle continues to give free samples to distributors in Taiwan and “rewards” them “when the shops make cash purchases, sell greater volumes of their products, launch a new product or provide better shelf space than other products.”
Thirty years after the original campaign, public perception of the corporation hasn’t improved much. A 2005 GMI Poll found Nestle to be one of the four most boycotted companies in the world and the most boycotted in the UK.
Nestle frequently stresses the “little-known fact” that it is one of the biggest private donors to the causes that promote breastfeeding. But evidence of its efforts are conspicuously scant.
Aside from the formula row, the company is currently the subject of a lawsuit by the International Labor Rights Fund, which has accused it of employing child slave-laborers on plantations in the Ivory Coast. If Nestle wants a better global image, sticking disingenuous, hypocritical ads in the paper is not the way to go about it. It’s time this serial violator cleaned up its act.
James Baron is an employee of the Taiwan ICDF.
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