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.

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.