Nestléd in controversy

International Nestlé-Free Week takes place from 25 to 31 October. Ian Fitzpatrick looks back at the boycott and explains why challenging the aggressive marketing of babymilk formula is still so important.

John Birdsall/Press Association Images

In August 1973, New Internationalist published an interview with leading child nutrition experts who talked of a ‘worrying swing away from breastfeeding’ in favour of commercial breast-milk substitutes. The ‘Baby Food Tragedy’ article, along with a 1974 War on Want report called ‘The Baby Killer’ and the 1975 documentary film Bottle Babies, drew widespread attention to the issue and led to an international campaign that continues today.

Henri Nestlé’s ‘Milk Food’ was invented around 1867 and was soon being exported to European colonies. In the 1930s Dr Cecily Williams described the alarming rise in illness and death amongst babies whose mothers had been persuaded not to breastfeed and by the 1960s Dr Derrick Jelliffe, an expert in infant nutrition, had coined the term ‘commerciogenic malnutrition’.

Launched on 4 July 1977, the US Nestlé Boycott demanded that Nestlé stop promoting infant formulas in developing countries. In 1979, the campaign went global.

That same year, the World Health Organization hosted a meeting to develop a code regulating the marketing of infant formula, and in 1981, 118 countries voted in favour of the International Code – with only the US voting against it. The Code’s aim was ‘to contribute to the provision of safe and adequate nutrition for infants, by the protection and promotion of breastfeeding, and by ensuring the proper use of breast-milk substitutes’. Today, it is national law in over 60 countries. In 1984 Nestlé agreed to abide by the Code and the boycott was called off, but it was relaunched in 1988 with boycott co-ordinators saying the agreement had not been honoured.

Nestlé is the market leader in sales of breast-milk substitutes and controls nearly 30 per cent of the babyfood market. The UK-based campaign Baby Milk Action is currently asking the public to email Nestlé over its latest global marketing strategy: the company has added logos to its packaging claiming its formula ‘protects’ babies and is promoting it to health workers, with claims that it reduces diarrhoea and is ‘the new ìGold Standardî in infant nutrition’. Yet the World Health Assembly reiterated in May 2010 that improved breastfeeding practices could save 1.5 million babies every year.

‘Nestlé is an aggressive company in all areas of its business,’ says Mike Brady from Baby Milk Action. ‘It promises shareholders five to six per cent growth per year and evaluates the profit from pushing its babymilk – in violation of the Code – against how this fuels the boycott, harms its image and loses it sales of other products. Boycotters have forced changes in Nestlé policies and practices – for example, compelling it to add warnings to labels in the appropriate language about the importance of breastfeeding – but more pressure is needed. International Nestlé-Free Week is an opportunity to spread the word. Our aim this year is to have Nestlé remove the claims that its formula ìprotectsî babies, which undermine the message that breastfeeding protects.’