Throwing oneself “into the lions’ den”

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Article in La Liberté  and Le Courier about out the Nestle Shareholder meetings  - 29.7.11  - in French

Here is an English translation of the text:

Every shareholders meeting sees its lot of small shareholders who climb bravely to the podium to question the company’s directors. During the summer, “La Liberté” will be introducing you to several of these trouble makers, who explain what drives them, their outstanding successes and their setbacks as well as their vision of the economy.


Throwing oneself “into the lions’ den”


NESTLÉ – The Brit Patti Rundall has been crossing swords for almost thirty years with the food giant, whom she accuses of flooding the market with not so innocuous infant formula



“Since the Queen awarded me the Order of the British Empire, Peter Brabeck has been much more polite to me. Before, he used to answer me in a way that was almost rude.” What the chief executive officer of Nestlé thinks of her, Patti Rundall doesn’t really worry about – no more than she worries about the wave of sighs that her recurrent interventions evoke from among the shareholders during the food giant’s annual shareholders meetings. In thirty years of fighting against the manufacturers of breast milk substitutes, the indefatigable sixty-year-old has seen plenty.

“I do not go to the shareholders meetings to be scolded but because I want to say loud and clear what other shareholders only dare to think to themselves!” insists the Brit. “The explanations of Nestlé’s directors are, in general more applauded than my criticism. That’s how it is. It takes time for things to change…”

And Patti Rundall recalls that her activism and that of her colleagues at Baby Milk Action (see inset) have resulted in advancing “the cause” specific ways: the extension to six months of the period of breastfeeding recommended by the world health bodies for developing countries, prohibition of the distribution by industry of free samples of infant formula and a tightening up of the labeling of breast milk substitutes.

Boycott and public discussions

Patti Rundall’s wrangle with the Vaudois company goes back to the beginning of the 1980s. “In the United States, big companies like Bristol-Myers Squibb were already in the firing line of pro-breastfeeding activists,” she recalls. The criticism leveled at these companies? The “abusive” marketing, especially in developing countries, of infant formula, whose inappropriate use can turn out to be thoroughly murderous. “At the time, American nuns went out and bought shares in these companies in order to be able to have their say!” On the other hand, in Europe, “nobody was doing anything”.

Armed with the desire to “make the whole infant formula industry change”, the members of Baby Milk Action, Patti Rundall in the lead, chose to attack “the biggest company of the sector”, to wit Nestlé, which “represented 40% of the market. Moreover, it is still one of the leaders,” notes the activist. It was a fight that took the form of a boycott as well as questionings during the shareholders meetings. But also discussions – “I cross paths with the heads of Nestlé five times a year in Brussels” – and public debates organized by NGOs.

Nestlé, the “saviour”

“Our main demand of Nestlé is that they stop selling breast milk substitutes by claiming that they are good for health, that they make babies stronger etc. Mothers must be warned, clearly, that these products contain risks, in particular bacteria.”

What about the information and sensitivization campaigns organized by the Vaudois giant in developing countries? “On the one hand, it’s praise worthy, but on the other, it’s even worse because Nestlé’s managers are setting themselves up as saviours, making women dependent on their advice, in other words, on their products.”

This is criticism that Patti Rundall will continue to make during the shareholders meetings “as long as Nestlé refuses to discuss our demands”. She is willing to face setbacks – “as in 2006, when I wanted to have the maximum level of sugar in infant formula lowered” – and “to let myself be called an obtuse person”. She is also willing to play cat and mouse with the security service, which “tries sometimes to prevent me from accosting the members of the board of directors”. Finally, this Englishwoman will continue to be accompanied by a group of activists who demonstrate in from of the assembly hall “entirely legally, as usual!”

Biographical sketch



61 years old, married with two children, living in Cambridge (England).


In 1980, when she was a teacher, an artist and active in the Liberal Party, the heard of the NGO Baby Milk Action from her neighbour, author of the book The Politicfs of Breasfeeding. She was “horrified to discover the politics” of the major Western corporation 

Several months later, she took over as head of the United Kingdom section of Baby Milk Action. At the time, the activities of the NGO, founded in 1978, “were very advanced in the United States, but very little in Great Britain”.

In 1989, she became a minor share holder in Nestlé. Two years later, she received “a huge packet of shares from a Swiss Pasteur” and took the floor for the first time during a shareholders meeting of the Vaudois corporation. Since then, she has made the trip to Switzerland every year in the spring to go up to the podium.

 In 2000, the Queen awarded her the Order of the British Empire for her relentless activism.



The World Health Assembly voted in 1981 an International Code for the Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes. The code, which establishes the primacy of breast milk over all forms of substitutes, has as its purpose protecting breast feeding from the commercial promotion that affects mothers and health care workers. The Code, which has been complemented since by various resolutions, covers bottles and comforters. It also sets labelling standards.



Patti Rundall’s annual statements before the Nestlé shareholders meeting are not to the liking of all the shareholders. “In 1988, exasperated by these attack, I, in turn, went up to the podium to suggest to Mr Brabek that he defend himself,” recounts Chrsitine Renaudin, founder of the Vaudois Liberal-Green Party. As a result, the CEO of the company “sent me for a year to Africa so that I might observe the situation in the field then write a report”. It was an experience that caused Ms Renaudin to say that “the reality of infant formula is not that described by Baby Milk Action. Sometimes, indeed, it is breastfeeding that is responsible for contamination.” Moreover, in thirty years, the food giant “has made enormous progress!” according to Mr Renaudin, who regrets that the activists “prefer combat to the truth”.



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