Thu, Apr 03, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Nestle's milk of human kindness

By James Baron

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.

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