United Reformed Church Assembly 2010 presents opportunity to expose Nestlé malpractice

Share this

Media coverage: Ekklesia 1 July 2010

We have just learned that the forthcoming Assembly of the United Reformed Church (4 July) presents an ideal opportunity to put pressure on Nestlé to stop its systematic violations of the World Health Assembly's marketing requirements for baby foods. If you will be attending the Assembly, please look at the up-to-date information in this site, particularly concerning Nestlé's current global baby milk marketing scam. Nestlé is claiming its baby milk 'protects' babies even though it knows babies fed on it are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. Contact me if you would like to discuss this further. Nestlé puts its profits before all else and the changes we have compelled it to make have come from exposure, and the public backing the boycott and telling Nestlé they are doing so.

[Left, How Nestlé promotes its breastmilk substitutes to health workers - this leaflet from Egypt June 2010 - claiming its formula 'protects' and is 'Strengthening the immune defenses and reducing the incidence of diarrhea in the crucial first year of life.' In truth, babies fed on baby milk are proven to be more likely to suffer diarrhoea than breastfed babies.]

The Assembly is due to debate the Church's boycott on investing funds in Nestlé and, possibly, the Church's promotion of the boycott. We are very pleased that the URC has been a long-time supporter of the campaign, as well as one of Baby Milk Action's funders, and hope this will be an opportunity to update the membership and reinvigorate the Church's involvement in the campaign.

From information we have received this week from the URC Church and Society Committee: "it had decided in 2007 that it was timely to review its 1992 boycott. As part of a period of information gathering and a wider review of the Church's ethical investment guidelines, some URC representatives attended a meeting with Nestlé organised by the ecumenical Church Investors Group in December 2009. This informed, in March 2010, a decision to propose to the Assembly that Nestlé should no longer be treated on a different investment basis from all other companies under its new, more rigorous, Ethical Investment Principles. Nestlé was invited by the URC to make a presentation in June 2010 to address some specific concerns." 

Although the Committee began the review process three years ago and has met twice with Nestlé, Baby Milk Action was not approached or invited to brief the Committee prior to its decisions being taken and was only informed by the Committee on 21 June 2010, less than 2 weeks before the Assembly is due to take place, that it was asking the Assembly to endorse its decision to invest in Nestlé. 

Baby Milk Action has now been invited to meet with some representatives of the Committee, but as it is currently concentrating on promoting its 'Email Nestlé in June' campaign and as it is National Breastfeeding Awareness Week has asked the Committee to hold the Resolution over to the next Assembly. This would also give Baby Milk Action time to arrange for experts to brief the Committee.

Baby Milk Action needs sufficient time to respond to the 40-page document prepared by the Committee for the Assembly and the Committee needs time to meet to review its investment decision in the light of this, if it is willing to do so. We will also try to prepare a briefing paper that can be distributed to the Assembly if the Committee does decide to press ahead with the Resolutions on allowing investment and dropping the boycott. The report reproduces Nestlé assertions without responses from Baby Milk Action. This is not only because Baby Milk Action was not consulted as there is information on our website regarding Nestlé's specific claims. For example, the Committee report includes Nestlé saying: "Nestlé itself has never marketed Perlagon on the basis that it combats diarrhoea." Search the Baby Milk Action website for 'Pelargon' and you immediately come to Baby Milk Action's response to this denial (contained in a 2004 briefing to the Methodist Church). As can be seen from Nestlé's own leaflet for Pelargon which claims 'Diarrhoea and its side-effects are counteracted...', Nestlé was not telling the truth

Nestle claims on Pelargon

Had the Committee checked with Baby Milk Action during the past three years, would it have come to a different decision about Nestlé's claims and the proposal to put to the Assembly? In response to a Baby Milk Action letter-writing campaign in 2003 backed by pressure from the boycott, Nestlé not only admitted producing the above leaflets, it said it was "preparing new materials for health professionals in Southern Africa with increased focus on the factual and scientific matters in these materials." The boycott brings results. No wonder Nestlé wants the URC to end its support for the boycott and compromise its independence by profiting from its latest marketing campaign claiming Nestlé baby milk reduces diarrhoea.

The March 2010 decision by the Committee to invest came after Nestlé's Vice President, Neils Christiansen, briefed Church officials in December 2009. On first glance the Baby Milk Action information included in the report for the Assembly has been taken from a briefing from 6 years ago. We need to analyse the report, particularly the assurances given by the Mr. Christiansen and his team last December, but time is short - our priority during June is on targeting Nestlé's claims that its baby milk 'protects' babies and reduces the incidence of diarrhoea and other claims of health benefits - in truth babies fed on baby milk are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die. Nestlé claims it backs the 'breastfeeding is best' message, but right now it is promoting its formula as 'The new "Gold Standard" in infant nutrition' (leaflet for health workers shown left).

 Click here for the press release and link to send a message to Nestlé.

We need all the support we can get. The Methodist Church Central Finance Board decided to invest in Nestlé in 2006 against our advice, suggesting this was a parallel strategy to the boycott to address the 'scandal' of Nestlé baby milk marketing. However, Nestlé has used that investment to try to undermine the campaign. The Methodist Church has had to contact Nestlé several times to ask it to stop misrepresenting the investment decision.  The the Central Finance Board decision appears to have influenced the URC Committee, although the Methodist Conference was not asked to endorse - and did not endorse - investing in Nestlé. This was a decision of the Central Finance Board, following a report produced by the Joint Advisory Committee on the Ethics of Investment (JACEI), which suggested investment would allow closer 'engagement' with Nestlé management. The Methodist Conference in 2006 did adopt texts stating:

"JACEI acknowledges the continuing concern with regard to some aspects of Nestlé's interpretation of the International Code, the implementation of company guidelines and the transparency of the procedures for monitoring compliance. These concerns may cause some through conscience to maintain a consumer boycott of Nestlé products." [emphasis added - documents available here] 

We have yet to be told of any benefit of the Central Finance Board's strategy of 'changing things from within'.

It is a fallacious argument that investing gives more influence. FTSE4Good, an ethical investment listing, confirmed to Baby Milk Action this week, "Nestle is not included in the FTSE4Good indices," but this does not stop 'engagement'. FTSE4Good went on, "As you know we are engaging with all the infant food manufacturers re our criteria as a key aim is about improving company practices." That is the normal approach of ethical investing - don't invest in companies until they make meaningful changes, demonstrated by independent monitoring. Invest without those changes, leverage is lost and conflicts of interest result as the investor profits from the malpractice.

Nestlé current refusal to remove the 'protect' logos from the labels of its breastmilk substitutes certainly shows that it has not changed. This and other health claims and promotional practices are a clear violation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, adopted by the World Health Assembly in 1981. In May 2010, the World Health Assembly expressed its concern over ongoing violations, particularly those related to health claims and specifically stated it: "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;” 

However, in its response to our 'Email Nestlé' campaign, the company is refusing to remove the claims and ignores the measures adopted by the World Health Assembly. Nestlé is telling the public : "the World Health Assembly does not formulate marketing standards -– rather it makes health policy recommendations to Member States."

Nestlé is telling the media, "The 'Protect' logo is simply used to inform people of the scientifically proven benefits of the product in meeting the nutritional needs of babies." 

According to UNICEF: "Improved breastfeeding practices and reduction of artificial feeding could save an estimated 1.5 million children a year". 

According to the World Health Organisation: "Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life is particularly beneficial, and infants who are not breastfed in the first month of life may be as much as 25 times more likely to die than infants who are exclusively breastfed."

Independent reviews have a different view of specific claims used by Nestlé. For example, the Cochrane Library has reviewed studies regarding added LCPs and supposed benefits to brain and eye development and concluded these are 'not proven'. The Department of Health in South Africa told Nestlé its claims breach South African labelling laws, but Nestlé refused to remove them. 

Nestlé strategy of claiming its formula 'protects' babies undermines the obligatory 'breastfeeding is best for babies' warning that the boycott helped to bring in. The 'protect' strategy comes from the very top of the company, as does the strategy to undermine the boycott. Mr. Christiansen, who led the Nestlé delegation to the URC, is credited within Nestlé for ending the first boycott of the company in 1984 by making promises to abide by the International Code (the marketing standards Nestlé now suggest do not exist). The promises were broken and the boycott relaunched in 1988. Today, according to even Nestlé's Global Public Affairs Manager, Nestlé is 'widely boycotted'. In fact, an independent survey found it to be one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet and the most boycotted in the UK. The boycott has forced some significant changes from Nestlé  (see some examples here), but it continues to reject Baby Milk Action's four-point plan for saving lives and ultimately ending the boycott. For example, it refuses to accept the validity of the World Health Assembly measures. Nestlé is singled out for boycott action because monitoring finds it to be the worst of the baby food companies. 

We will do our best to respond to Nestlé's latest attempt to undermine the boycott and hope that the URC Assembly will become an opportunity for Church members to say they find it unacceptable that Nestlé continues to systematically violate the World Health Assembly marketing standards.

It is, of course, for the members to decide whether they wish to invest in Nestlé - and so profit from this malpractice - and to consider the message this will send. It is for members to decide whether to act collectively in promoting the boycott. We did offer today to debate with Nestlé at the Assembly, but have already been told this is not possible. We will respond to the report as best we can - but we have rather a lot else on at the moment and  time is short. We need all the help we can get so that Nestlé's attempt at a PR coup instead shines the spotlight on what it is doing right now around the world.

Despite the Methodist Church Central Finance Board deciding to invest in Nestlé and 'engage', the company has relaunched its strategy of claiming its baby milk reduces diarrhoea and is further away than ever from meeting the FTSE4Good criteria and our own four-point plan for ending the boycott as it now denies the marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly. The boycott, however, stopped Nestlé's 'counteracts diarrhoea' claim in the past and other violations of the World Health Assembly marketing standards. We will stop its latest global marketing strategy as well with enough public support.

If the URC invests in Nestlé it will profit from violations of the World Health Assembly marketing standards, such as the company's global strategy claiming its baby milk 'protects'. This tin in Saudi Arabia (May 2010), also has the prominent flash 'New Active Immunity' to divert attention from the fact that babies fed on baby milk are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies. Such images and text are prohibited by Article 9.2 of the International Code.

Other claims on the back of the label include: "LCPUFA Two special fatty acids found in breast milk, important for your babies defense system, and contribute to the development of brain and vision." In its response to Baby Milk Action's current campaign, Nestlé says these claims are 'scientifically proven'. This is simply untrue. Read the analysis by the independent and respected Cochrane Library at http://www2.cochrane.org/reviews/en/ab000376.html

Nestlé says the 'protect' logos have been launched in 120 countries. For an example from Africa click here.

Here I am focusing on the baby milk issue. There are other issues, such as the way Nestlé is using its Fairtrade KitKat to divert attention from its cocoa purchasing record. While Fairtrade KitKat benefits the producers of the 1% of cocoa sourced by Nestlé for this product, Nestlé has failed to deliver on its promise to end child slavery in its cocoa supply chain by 2006. It has been taken to court in the US by campaigners acting on behalf of former child slaves from Ivory Coast.

Nestlé has also been targeted recently by Greenpeace over the harmful impact its sourcing of palm oil. It has responded in the same way as it responded to the child slavery campaigners in 2001: promising to end the practice within five years. It remains to be seen whether it will deliver on this undertaking or not.

Similarly, there are other groups raising concerns about Nestlé trade union busting activities, impact on water supplies and spying on campaign groups. You can find information on this issues on the Nestlé Critics website at:


Also see the report the Nestlé Critics submitted to the United Nations Global Compact under its Integrity Measures: