Response to "Nestle Boycott Drama..." from Mike Brady, Baby Milk Action

Mike Brady tried to leave this post, but was unable to submit it as a comment, so I’ve re-posted it here because he’s provided some valuable information in response to Nestle Boycott Drama: A Newbie’s Perspective that may help myself and others better understand what is going on.

(I have copied Mike’s text in its entirety without editing. Line breaks have been added for readability.)

Hi Karen, Thanks for this post. I became aware of the event due to the amount of traffic coming to Baby Milk Action sites from Twitter as people posted links. I’d not posted to Twitter before, but after following for a while posted some links to background information and tried to counter some of the dishonest Nestlé statements being relayed by some bloggers at the event.

When Nestlé came on and offered to answer questions, I posted a few, including asking if Nestlé is now ready to sign up to the 4-point plan for ending the boycott. I also suggested a Nestlé/Baby Milk Action tweet debate. I found no answers to my questions and Nestlé refuses to debate with us having lost a series in the UK between 2001-2004. Nestlé also refused to attend a European Parliament Public Hearing into its practices in 2000 and currently refuses to set out its terms and conditions for participating in an independent, expert tribunal we have proposed.

There were some over the top posts both from some of the bloggers and boycott supporters, though I think the majority posting were trying to address the issues. I don’t know how many bloggers were posting so no conclusions should be reached on how the ‘bloggers’ responded - it will be interesting to see what follow-up posts are. Similarly, I hope nasty comments will not be used to dismiss concerns about Nestlé out of hand. Those who did blast the bloggers need to reflect on how some have been alienated as a result. I sent a tweet asking people to cool it and keep the focus on Nestlé and its practices.

I’ve written about this and why Nestlé tries to influence opinion leaders with these jollies here: http://boycottnestle.blogspot.com/2009/09/nestle-family-twitters.html The campaign is evidence based. A few years ago we had the opportunity to challenge Nestlé claims in a Nestlé anti-boycott advertisement that stated the company markets infant formula ‘ethically and responsibly’. After a 2-year investigation the Advertising Standards Authority upheld all our complaints. Unfortunately the ruling has no impact on Nestlé’s PR materials - or Tweets! As you say, there is a wealth of material. Periodically, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), of which we are the UK member, rounds up examples of violations in Breaking the Rules reports, which you can find in the ‘codewatch’ section of http://www.ibfan.org/

Nestlé is found to be the worst company, which is why it is targeted with the boycott. Other companies are targeted by exposure and other campaigns. There have been recent mergers and takeovers that mean that Danone is coming to rival Nestlé as a source of violations of the international standards companies should follow and it may be subject to consumer action - however, the parent company has said it is conducting a ‘root and branch’ review of its new companies so we are in communication and giving it a little time, though so far the signs don’t look good as it is aggressively competing with Nestlé, particularly in Asia, which drives standards down. Regarding independence of evidence, we reproduce the companies’ own materials where possible and I would encourage you to look at that and ask yourself whether a responsible company do this?

You can read our analysis of what the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions says, but first just think whether it is right, for example, that Nestlé claims on labels that its formula ‘protects’ in countries such as Malawi where under-5 mortality is 140 per 1,000 live births and elsewhere around the world. You can see the tin from Malawi on my blog. That is an interesting example as Nestlé refused to translate warnings and instructions into Chichewa, the national language, until we got this onto the national television in the UK - campaigning does work and it would be great if bloggers back the campaign to have these ‘protect’ logos removed from formula labels.

IBFAN is a network of 200 civil society groups in over 100 countries. We work to protect breastfeeding AND to protect babies fed on formula - the second aspect of our work is often missed if we are labelled as ‘breastfeeding organisations’ and helps to needlessly and inaccurately polarise the issue. Nestlé misleads those who use formula and endangers babies fed on it through failing to provide required information on labels. How many people are aware that powdered formula is not sterile and that the World Health Organisation issued instructions for reconstituting formula to reduce the risks of possible intrinsic contamination with bacteria? Nestlé refuses to tell people about this, despite having to recall formula after deaths linked to such contamination in Europe.

IBFAN is independent, but anyone who is critical of Nestlé and the industry is immediately labelled as biased. In the UK 27 faith, development and academic organisations formed the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring. Its first report in 1997 found companies breach marketing requirements ‘systematically’. UNICEF commented that IBFAN’s monitoring was ‘vindicated’. IGBM members, such as Save the Children, have issued further reports and statements since. The British Medical Journal has also published studies. They come under attack by Nestlé and other companies. Regarding universality of Nestlé practices, the company gets away with as much as it can. Since the Code was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981 - with Nestlé leading the industry battle against it, despite the Tweets saying it backed it (see original documents on the Baby Milk Action site) - we have worked for its implementation in legislation.

Over 70 countries have measures to some degree, that are helping to save lives. In Brazil thanks to this and other efforts, median breastfeeding duration has increased from 3 months to 10 months. Companies can comply when forced to; we are not asking them to do anything impossible. Yet Nestlé opposes legislation. Those nice people at Nestlé USA were part of a campaign against UNICEF and WHO in the Philippines when the organisations were backing stronger legislation. I cite a quote from the head of UNICEF Philippines in my blog on the Twitter case. We mounted an international campaign and eventually the legislation came in, mostly intact and we are now working to see it enforced, but as the latest campaign sheet on our website shows Nestlé is still finding ways to target parents. Particularly illuminating is the outright dishonesty of Nestlé’s statements on this issue and the steps it goes to to try to divert criticism.

Key amongst these is the strategy of ‘two-step communication’, where it attempts to recruit others to relay its messages. I cite a case of an article written by a midwife who went on a similar trip to Nestlé HQ in Switzerland, which is so factually inaccurate we were given a substantial right to reply. Nestlé distributes the article still, without our right to reply, claiming it is independent, though the lead author also picked up a sponsorship deal for her training business from the company. I link to an analysis of the article, which covers many of your questions, with links to original materials. Tweets told us hardly anyone complains about Nestlé, yet it is one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet and has an anti-boycott team, including an agent running a spying operation that came to light when the spy who infiltrated a Swiss group was exposed. That group was working on a broad range of issues and there are concerns other than baby milk marketing.

A good starting point for those wanting information on Nestlé is the Nestlé Critics site at: http://www.nestlecritics.org/ For an overview of the baby milk issue and campaign resources see our Nestlé-Free Zone page. This includes code for a logo and link-back for declaring your site or blog a Nestlé-Free Zone. See:

http://www.babymilkaction.org/resources/boycott/nestlefree.html I realise I’ve not covered everything and already this is a long response, but I hope these links and information on our site, particularly in the ‘codewatch’ and ‘your questions answered’ sections will help. http://www.babymilkaction.org/ I’d also recommend taking a look at UNICEF’s film of the situation in the Philippines at: http://boycottnestle.blogspot.com/2007/05/watch-film-from-philippines-here.html

Best wishes,
Mike Brady
Campaigns and Networking Coordinator
Baby Milk Action

I genuinely appreciate Mike taking the time to reply directly and address some of my concerns. As Mike mentions, this doesn’t cover all of the questions I personally have, but I’ll review it and keep an open mind. My purpose in writing about this issue was not to take sides but highlight my own questions and concerns based on my limited exposure and knowledge of this issue - I’m still undecided, but willing to dig further to come to some conclusion one way or another. I absolutely agree that the allegations are serious and should be considered - this is just part of the process for me.