Nestle won't stop its 'protect' marketing strategy just yet

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Analysis of Nestlé's response to the 'Email Nestlé' campaign. Baby Milk Action has been asking people to email Nestlé over its latest baby milk marketing strategy. Nestlé has added logos to labels claiming its baby milks 'protect' babies and is promoting them with this and other health claims.

Nestlé is sending a standard response to people who have sent emails. This is given below with Baby Milk Action's analysis and a suggested reply. Click here to jump straight to the suggested reply.

Response from Nestlé's Global Public Affairs Manager, Dr. Gayle Crozier-Willi, in bold. 

Baby Milk Action's comments in italics.

There is no question about breast-milk being the best start a baby can have in life.

Nestlé says this, but is promoting its breastmilk substitutes with the claim they are 'The new "Gold Standard" in infant nutrition' (left: scan of Nestlé materials being used in June 2010). This and other idealising claims surely have the purpose of making people doubt the health benefits breastfeeding has over formula feeding.

To emphasise this, the following statement, "Important notice: Breast-milk is best for babies. Before you decide to use an infant formula consult your doctor or clinic for advice", appears on all our infant formula products. 

Our suggested email to Nestlé states: "Your prominent logos and health claims undermine the obligatory 'Breastfeeding is best for babies' message." (Click here to see a tin from Saudi Arabia, June 2010). Nestlé is simply ignoring this point. 

Such warnings are not there through Nestlé's choice, but are a requirement of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, brought in as a result of the Nestlé boycott. Nestlé's logos are more prominent and its health claims are clearly intended to undermine the message that breastfeeding protects babies. Nestlé's attitude to the warnings is demonstrated by its past refusal to translate them, until Baby Milk Action ran a three-year campaign specifically on this issue, which was picked up by Mark Thomas for his television programme (click here to watch Mark raising this with Nestlé).

Nestlé still refuses to warn on labels that powdered formula is not sterile and the simple steps that parents who use formula should take to reduce risks from possible contamination with harmful bacteria. It seems Nestlé does not want to undermine the idea that its baby milk 'protects', even though it has had to recall batches across Europe after deaths attributed to such contamination. For the information that Nestlé wants to hide, see the World Health Organisation site. As a result of Baby Milk Action's 'safer formula campaign', powdered formula sold in the UK does now include such warnings, and instructions on how to reduce risks, and we will continue to press Nestlé and other companies to bring labels into line everywhere.

However, for infants who, for whatever reason, cannot be breastfed, it is critically important that a safe, high-quality alternative be made available.

It has never been suggested that breastmilk substitutes should not be available. As the four-point plan put to Nestlé for ending the boycott makes clear, the campaign aim is that the products are marketed in line with World Health Assembly marketing standards. As well as protecting breastfeeding, the purpose of International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the Assembly in 1981, is "ensuring the proper use of breastmilk substitutes, when these are necessary, on the basis of adequate information and through appropriate marketing and distribution." 

Nestlé has falsely claimed in the past that campaigners want to stop it selling breastmilk substitutes (for example Nestlé made this suggestion to a Methodist Church Committee in 2004 as it tried to persuade it Nestlé had changed its practices).

Nestlé makes significant investments in R&D and technology to continuously deliver innovative products with scientifically proven nutritional benefits. We continue to make scientific and technical advances in the area of nutrition and we make sure that our infant formula products are “best in class” to meet as far as possible the nutritional requirements of non-breastfed babies.

Nestlé says it is constantly working to improve its products - but throughout the decades it has promoted the 'new improved' versions with the suggestion they are close to breastmilk. Indeed, in the 1930s it even promoted sweetened condensed milk as "ideal for delicate infants", even though it was banned for infant feeding in Britain as it was suspected of causing rickets and blindness.

Advancements do not change the fact that babies who are not breastfed are more likely to become sick and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. The World Health Organisation briefing on the World Health Assembly marketing standards states:

"In addition to the risks posed by not having breastmilk's protective qualities, breastmilk substitutes and feeding bottles in particular carry a high risk of contamination that can lead to life-threatening infections in young infants. Infant formula is not a sterile products and it may carry germs that can cause fatal illnesses. Artificial feeding is expensive, requires clean water, the ability of the mother or caregiver to read and comply with mixing instructions and a minimum standard of overall household hygeince - factors not readily met in many households in the world.

"Improper marketing and promotion of food products that compete with breastfeeding are important factors that often negatively affect the choice and ability of a mother to breastfeed her infant optimally. Given the special vulnerability of infants and the risks involved in inappropriate feeding practices, usual marketing practices are therefore unsuitable for these products."

Of course, Nestlé is not alone in claiming its products are the best and promoting them with health claims. The UK Advertising Standards Authority has upheld complaints against similar claims by other companies such as formula "builds the immune system" (Nestlé does not market these products in the UK). Click here for further information on companies claiming their formula is the best and the lack of substantiation for claims.

The functional benefits that are encapsulated in the “Protect” logo are scientifically substantiated – the result of many years of intensive research on how best to improve the formula composition to stimulate the infant’s immune system.

This is an example of how Nestlé makes false claims to promote its products. On Long Chain Polyunsaturated Fatty Acids (the DHA and ARA in Nestlé's logo, which it claims aid 'brain and eye development), the independent Cochrane Library said: "This review found that feeding term infants with milk formula enriched with LCPUFA had no proven benefit regarding vision, cognition or physical growth." On prebiotics, the Cochrane Library has said: "There is insufficient evidence to recommend the addition of prebiotics to infant feeds for prevention of allergic disease or food reactions." On probiotics, the Cochrane Library has said: "There is insufficient evidence to recommend the addition of probiotics to infant feeds for prevention of allergic disease or food reactions."

Baby Milk Action has been in correspondence with Nestlé about its 'protect' claims for over a year and the company has been unable to provide any convincing evidence to show that the Cochrane Library is incorrect in its assessment.

Baby Milk Action wants breastmilk substitutes to be as good as they can be and believes that any ingredient found to be of proven benefit should be included in all formulas. However, when expert committees at Codex Alimentarius and the European Commission have reviewed the composition requirements they have found there is no proven case for adding the ingredients that Nestlé is using as the basis of its marketing campaign. If the ingredients were a requirement for formulas, they should still not be used to idealise the products as babies fed on them continue to be more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die.

The logo helps distinguish this particular formula from other less advanced products but does not claim in any manner that infant formula is superior or equal to breast-milk.

The logo does not claim the formula is better than other formulas, it simply claims it 'protects'.

The colourful logo on the infant formula says 'protect start' and on the follow-on formula 'protect plus'.

Nestlé also promotes its formula on materials for health workers with claims such as: "Start healthy, Stay healthy" and "Strengthening the immune defenses and reducing the incidence of diarrhea in the crucial first year of life." Click here for a scan of a leaflet being used in June 2010.

Infant formula products are reviewed, registered and/or regulated by governments to ensure that consumers have technically precise and accurate information. In all countries where the “Protect” logo is used, it is consistent with the local legislative and regulatory framework.

The Department of Health in South Africa said after Nestlé launched its 'protect' logos there in 2008: "The Department of Health are extremely concerned about all the health claims that Nestle make on the new NAN 1, 2 and 3 tins. The health claims are a contravention of the current South African Regulations. A meeting was held with representatives of Nestle and Department of Health and it seems they were not aware that they are transgressing the Regulations. However, they are reluctant to change the labels."

The logos are prohibited by the marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly and Nestlé should abide by these provisions independently of other measures. Article 9.2 of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, states:  "Neither the container nor the label should have pictures of infants, nor should they have other pictures or text which may idealise the use of infant formula." [emphasis added]

Nestlé has a history of trying to weaken government implementation of the marketing standards, for example, the Minister of Health in Zimbabwe accused Nestlé of trying to 'economically blackmail' the country by threatening to pull out of the country if strong baby food marketing regulations were introduced. See Boycott News 26, 1999.

For your information, the World Health Assembly does not formulate marketing standards – rather it makes health policy recommendations to Member States. It is up to each Member State to determine how it implements these policy recommendations in their own country, according to their development goals and their social and legislative framework.

The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. Article 11.3 states: "Independently of any other measures taken for implementation of this Code, manufacturers and distributors of products within the scope of this Code should regard themselves as responsible for monitoring their marketing practices according to the principles and aim of this Code, and for taking steps to ensure that their conduct at every level conforms to them."

Dr. Gayle Crozier-Willi was leading Nestlé's delegation lobbying Health Ministers at the World Health Assembly in May 2010 and so she knows they adopted a further Resolution on 22 May 2010 that specifically: “CALLS UPON infant food manufacturers and distributors to comply fully with their responsibilities under the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly resolutions.”

Accepting the validity of the Code and subsequent, relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions is step 1 of the four-point plan for ending the boycott. 

We hope to have answered your concerns. Do not hesitate to contact us if you have further questions.

Our suggested message asked Dr. Crozier-Willi said: "Please contact me when you have decided to drop this shameful promotional strategy." Clearly that point has not been reached and further pressure is needed. You can spread the word and encourage others to email Nestlé and support the boycott by going to:

Suggested reply to Nestlé's response - cut, paste and edit as required

I am disappointed that Nestlé is defending its strategy of promoting baby milk with the claim it 'protects' and other health claims. In your response, you have failed to even acknowledge the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981, which companies should abide by independently of other measures. The Assembly meeting in May 2010 repeated its call on companies to meet their responsibilities under the Code and subsequent Resolutions. Your 'protect' logos and other claims are a clear violation of Article 9.2 of the Code and there is no justification for using them or defending them. It is also reported that you have even been told they breach national regulations.  

In addition, the 'benefits' you claim for your formula are not 'scientifically substantiated' as you suggest. There is a vast body of evidence showing that babies who are not breastfed are at greater risk of short and long-term illness. Your 'protect' claims undermine the message that breastfeeding protects babies. You suggest the logos compare your formula with other brands, but there is nothing in your logo that refers to other brands of formula. I also note that independent reviews of studies on optional added ingredients, such as LCPs, prebiotics and probiotics have found claims made about supposed benefits not to be proven.

I asked you to contact me when you had decided to drop this strategy - clearly it is your intention to continue to put your profits before the lives and well-being of babies and their families. Such an attitude will help me to convince others to boycott your company. Please let me know when Nestlé has changed its position.