Nestle Boycott Drama: A Newbie’s Perspective

On Wednesday, as I was innocently looking at my Twitter feed, I began to notice the hashtag

#nestlefamily coming up quite frequently. When Ann Douglas, author of The Mother of All Books series posted a link to An open letter to the attendees of the Nestle Family blogger event from the PhD in Parenting blog, I decided to check out what was going on. I was shocked to find out that there has been an active boycott on Nestle products for a good chunk of the last 30 years. (Did you know this? I sure didn’t.)

I read through the open letter and found out that Nestle had invited a number of prominent parent bloggers to what amounts to, based on what I have heard, a sort of focus group session – all expenses paid. Mind you, a good number of those bloggers didn’t know about the Nestle boycott before they went. But now they know! The group of bloggers that met with Nestle became embroiled in a firestorm of debate around allegations that Nestle has been violating World Health Organization (WHO) codes adopted in third world countries for the promotion of breast milk substitutes.

I have learned a little about this whole boycott in the last couple of days and here’s my perspective on it. It’s based on a very limited amount of research as the amount of information out there is vast, overwhelming and not well-organized. Therefore, there may be errors or omissions in this information, but I have tried to be accurate to the best of my ability. I will note where I am making inferences.

Baby Milk Action, a breastfeeding advocacy/watchdog group in the UK seems to be co-spearheading this boycott and they’ve listed dozens of allegations against Nestle on their site. They have a sister blog, Boycott Nestle, that is obviously updated frequently with copious amounts of information and reports more detail of Nestle’s alleged misdeeds. The other group that seems to be co-spearheading the campaign against Nestle is the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), which is basically an international breastfeeding advocacy group.

Nestle was chosen as the company to boycott because they are the worst offender, not because they are the only offender. McSpotlight, a site that I haven’t looked at much, but seems to be a consumer watchdog group offers a brief, high level summary of the boycott issues. Here are some of the allegations listed on McSpotlight:

Nestlé encourages bottle feeding primarily by either giving away free samples of baby milk to hospitals, or neglecting to collect payments.

I’ve been trying to find or get someone who knows this issue to tell me whether they give out free samples to every mother across the board or if it’s given out based on need/requests. In my opinion, giving out a free sample based on need is kind to mothers who are unable to breastfeed. I’ve experienced this and I don’t have a problem with Nestle giving out formula to mothers in need.

There is no denying that breastfeeding is best for a child, but every mother has the right to choose not to breastfeed. There are many reasons a woman may make this choice, but if she is fully informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and drawbacks of formula, then she is responsible for her own choice and shouldn’t be judged for it. And Nestle shouldn’t be taking the heat for her choice either.

Granted, we’re talking about third world countries here, so the likelihood that there are extensive breastfeeding campaigns and education programs is probably non-existent.

On the other hand, if Nestle is indeed handing out free formula to every new mother across the board, then I’m 100% in agreement that the practice needs to stop. Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to clarify this question one way or the other.

[Nestle] has been criticised for misinforming mothers and health workers in promotional literature.

Okay. Nice statement. What misinformation are they spreading? Where is this promotional literature? This is another thing I haven’t seen on any of the sites as of yet.

Nestlé implies that malnourished mothers, and mothers of twins and premature babies are unable to breastfeed, despite health organisations claims that there is no evidence to support this.

Another claim that, so far, is not backed up by hard evidence posted to the Web (that I could find). I have to say that, even in my own reading of non-Nestle baby literature, I have encountered statements that malnourishment, having twins or a premature baby CAN affect milk supply. Part of me wonders if this statement is possibly slanted to achieve a certain result, i.e., support for the cause. I have to question this type of thing if I’m going to adequately look into this issue and form an opinion of my own.

Instructions and health warnings on packaging are often either absent, not prominently displayed or in an inappropriate language.

This is just wrong. Unjustifiable and, if true, must change. Part of the problem with third world babies getting formula is that it’s often made up with contaminated water – and even diluted heavily to save money. WHO and Unicef have both quoted that:

…1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed…

I haven’t looked, but it would be interesting to know how they arrive at that figure. Does this 1.5 million only include babies who died because they were given formula improperly? Does the number include babies who were exclusively breastfed, but it just wasn’t enough? What is the breakdown of cause of death? Is the number limited to third world countries’ infant mortality rates or is it global? What’s the comparison of third world infant mortality to the rest of the world?

If those questions were answered one way, you could feel very justified in jumping on the boycott bandwagon. Answered differently, Nestle could start to look a lot better. That’s why I think they’re very important points to consider.

Based on my reading so far, those are the pertinent points that are causing the great Twitter drama of the week. The anti-Nestle contingent is very aggressive in their stance, taking on a superior attitude that screams “I’m right; accept it”. Initially, I was ready to board that boycott bandwagon, but then I saw the militant attitudes and started really questioning what I was reading. All of the major sources of information contain statements, but little in the way of actual hard evidence, data or reasoning, unless it’s buried pretty deep in their sites. If that’s the case, then they need to reorganize their campaign so that it is more effective. Mind you, a boycott that’s approaching the 30 year mark and claims no changes have been made sounds pretty darned ineffective to me.

My personal opinion is that a boycott of a company that is of the size and scope that Nestle is pretty much amounts to a great big waste of time. Why? Because they own so much and there are places that buy and resell Nestle products that you’d never know about without doing some major research work. For example, Tim Hortons, a Canadian coffee, donut, sandwich chain, sells Nestle foods in their stores. It’s not labeled when I buy it, so how do I boycott that? Nestle also owns a host of companies that operate under different names. The big names would be easy to find but smaller, lesser known brands won’t be.

The boycott campaign muddies up the issues around baby milk substitutes by making unrelated allegations about exploiting factory workers, supporting oppressive regimes because they operate in certain countries, and they even bring in animal rights issues.

This campaign needs better focus, organization and presentation of the allegations AND evidence that is impartial, organized and easy to navigate. Part of my problem with this whole incident is the fact that the two primary organizations in this fight against Nestle are also advocates for breastfeeding. The mantra of every person (mostly women; mom bloggers) who had something to say against Nestle was that this is not an issue of breastfeeding versus formula feeding. Yet the references they cite are from breastfeeding advocacy groups and why would those groups make any effort to publish unbiased information. If they publish information that defames Nestle as a provider of breast milk substitutes, it supports their agenda. When I stated that I would prefer to see data from an independent source, I was either ignored or questioned about my own motives.

Leaving aside the issue of whether or not Nestle has done anything wrong, I was frankly appalled at the way the discussion of this situation went. The Nestle Family bloggers were attacked and harangued for their lack of journalistic integrity (uh…they’re bloggers, not journalists). If anyone played the devil’s advocate (like I did), they were belittled. What could have been a very rational and helpful-to-the-cause exchange of information morphed into an ugly confrontation that hurt the campaign against Nestle. I know that I am personally extremely hesitant to align myself with a group that is so disrespectful and closed-minded.

Are there valid concerns being raised by these groups? Probably. I doubt they’d stick around for 30 years if there weren’t. But, until I see my questions answered, I’m going to continue to enjoy my Ovaltine, Kit Kats, Nesquik, Lean Cuisine, Haagen Dazs, etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not dismissing the claims as unfounded. I also don’t want to make light of the issue at hand. I just don’t see enough hard evidence to take these groups as their word that Nestle is in the wrong AT THIS TIME. I reserve the right to change my mind and join the boycott at any point in the future, though, and I will gladly publish an update if and when that happens.