Seeing through the Nestle emperor's diversionary tactics

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Nestlé Chairman, Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, was using his familiar tactic of diversionary tactics in India last month and will be doing so again tomorrow (4 December 2012) at the European Parliament.

Baby Milk Action has been concerned about the impact of FTSE's decision in 2010 to weaken the breastmilk substitutes criteria of its FTSE4Good ethical investment listing, which led to Nestlé being included without having to bring its marketing practices into line with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly.

The Nestlé Chairman dismissed the Nestlé boycott and concerns about the company's baby milk marketing activities in India by referring to FTSE4Good. He told NDTV:

"There are issues that have been in the history of our company, which we can discuss. We feel that we know today we are complying 100% with the WHO Code. We have been recognised. We wouldn't be part of FTSE4Good if we hand't been recognised. We are being investigated independently from us by those institutions and we get the certificate of good behaviour, which I think corresponds to the way we are behaving."

This is misleading on many levels.

The Indian Government has clearly stated that Nestlé sponsorship of health workers in India breaks its laws. I raised this directly with Mr Brabeck at the Nestlé shareholder meeting in April 2012 and he responded by saying it wasn't for Baby Milk Action to tell him what to do - nor apparently the Indian Government. Earlier this year, Nestlé products were confiscated by a food authority for breaking labelling laws.

Even though the FTSE assessment process is severely flawed, FTSE has suggested to Baby Milk Action that it has raised a number of areas for improvement that were indentified in the last verification assessment at the most senior level of the company. This includes the sponsored events. That doesn't sound like a certificate of good behaviour backing up Nestlé's claim to be complying 100% with the marketing requirements.

While Mr Brabeck was in India, he also put on his mantle of environmental guru, warning against investing in biofuels to tackle climate change. He is even co-chairing an event tomorrow, 4 December, on the subject at the European Parliament, organised by the International Institute for Sustainable Development.

There is a debate to be had, but with all due respect to Mr Brabeck's success as a business leader, someone who is set on destroying local production and consumption in favour of moving his processed foods around the planet is not really the ideal spokesperson on this issue. The fact that he is so often given a platform rather suggests some are awed by the emperor's new clothes and do not see what lies beneath.

There is no food that is more locally produced and consumed than breastmilk, yet Nestlé attempts to supplant it using marketing strategies that violate the minimum standards adopted by the World Health Assembly since 1981 at great environmental - as well as health - cost.

While I was at the Nestlé shareholder meeting in April this year, Mr Brabeck introduced a special presentation on how Nestlé is attempting to change breakfast habits in India and China, where less than 2% of the populations eat the high salt, high sugar breakfast cereals such as those his self-declared Nutrition, Health and Wellness company produces. Shareholders were treated to images from an advertising campaign claiming, for example, a bowl of cereal has as much calcium as an egg. As Mr Brabeck told NDTV, he thinks 50 years ahead in developing company strategy. How many trucks, needing fuel, will be carrying cereal boxes around the country when Mr Brabeck has helped to change the culture?

Nestlé is similarly criticised over its bottling of water resources, not only for the energy used in moving bottles around, but the environmental impact of the bottling operations. It took a ten year campaign and finally the threat of daily fines to stop Nestlé's operation in the Brazilian town of São Lourenço, where it produced Pure Life water for the whole of Brazil and damaged the water park in this historic spa town. Not only did Nestlé oppose the campaign, it planted spies in Attac Switzerland, when it was working with Brazilian campaigners on this issue. One of them, Franklin Fredrick, told Swiss radio earlier this year how scared it made him to learn in the course of a court case how much private information Nestlé had gathered about him. Further details and a link to the interview here.

At the moment Nestlé is leading other baby milk companies in the Philippines in attempting to replace baby milk marketing regulations with its own weak draft law. The Department of Trade and Industry is lobbying members of congress on behalf of the industry, saying that the Philippines will lose US$400 million in investment if the draft law is not introduced. According to the Philippines Department of Health, WHO and UNICEF, the draft law "aims to support multinational companies while damaging the Filipino society: families, the mothers and children."

In 2000, the European Parliament held a public hearing into Nestlé's baby milk marketing activities. Nestlé refused to send a representative. Tomorrow, Nestlé's emperor will be dressed in all his finery as he is granted a platform to use his diversionary tactics once again.

Will anyone stand up and point out people should not be impressed by his clothing?