After witnessing the death of a four-month-old bottle-fed baby, a former Nestle sales executive in Pakistan has put together a report documenting unethical marketing practices by the company that affect the health of thousands of infants and their chances of survival. These marketing practices violate the World Health Organisation’s International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and other World Health Assembly resolutions.

By Someshwar Singh

May 2000

Geneva: The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) released here evidence to show that the world’s leading baby food manufacturer - the Swiss transnational corporation Nestle - was in violation of the international codes related to marketing set by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Milking Profits - How Nestle puts sales ahead of infant health, a report put together by a former Nestle sales executive in Pakistan - Syed Aamar Raza - presents a documented case of many marketing practices that primarily affect the health of thousands of infants and their chances of survival as a result of deliberate attempts to move away from breast-fed milk.

Most of these practices, which include an unholy alliance with doctors - in terms of inducing them to promote a particular infant food in preference to others - are in violation of the 1981 WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant World Health Assembly Resolutions.

The methods of sales promotion presented through internal company documents in the report include bribes of cash and gifts to doctors, provision of free supplies, direct marketing to mothers, setting of sales quotas and payment of incentives to marketing staff - all activities that violate the International Code.

What made Aamar forgo his rewarding job and turn to the defence of infants was the witnessing of the death of a four-month-old bottle-fed baby. The doctor treating the baby blamed the death on Aamar and his Nestle employers.

Where clean drinking water is not available, a bottle-fed baby is 25 times more likely to die of diarrhoea and four times more likely to die of acute respiratory infections than an optimally breastfed baby. Even when bottles are prepared properly under sterile conditions the risk of illness is greater than among breastfed babies.

‘But breastfeeding - a simple, inexpensive and traditional practice that has the potential to save hundreds of thousands of infant and child lives each year in Pakistan alone - is being endangered by the aggressive and unethical marketing practices of the manufacturers of artificial baby foods and feeding products,’ says the report. ‘These companies go to great lengths to come between a baby and its mother’s breasts. Breastfeeding babies are bad for business.’

Since sending his legal notice against Nestle in Pakistan, Aamar has been subjected to character assassination, bribe inducements and threats, and his family has gone into hiding for safety, says the IBFAN report. Both Aamar and his family have received anonymous threats and shots have been fired at his home.

At the same time, Nestle has been stepping up its efforts to build its ethical image. ‘Rather than accept responsibility for its faulty marketing strategy, which puts the company’s determination to be the market leader with every brand it sells before consideration of infant health. Indeed, Nestle’s promotion budget is a staggering $7.8 billion each year, four times the WHO’s budget.’

Milking Profits underscores the urgent need for national legislation implementing the International Code. The Government of Pakistan first drafted the proposed legislation in 1992, but because of international debate and external pressure from the baby food industry, it has yet to be enacted, says the report.

At a press briefing, other examples of how Nestle undermines government efforts to protect infant health were given by Dr Timothy Stamps, Minister of Health of Zimbabwe. He explained the pressure Nestle had exerted on his country’s government as it rried to bring in a strong law on baby food marketing. He added that the company had threatened to pull out its operations from the country if such a law was passed.

Meanwhile, at the World Health Assembly in session here, the Brazilian delegation has introduced a draft resolution on Infant and Young Child Nutrition. Discussion on this draft is yet to take place.

According to this draft resolution, governments are to be urged to strengthen all ongoing activities and develop new rights-based approaches to promote exclusive breast-feeding up to around six months of life and mixed feeding up to two years, giving emphasis to all forms of social dissemination of these concepts to enhance society’s commitment to these practices.

The draft also urges member-states to build a constructive dialogue between all stakeholders - especially the private sector - to propose efficient global mechanisms to monitor the progress towards the implementation of all infant and young child nutrition activities, particularly the implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.

In addition, the draft also calls upon government to improve complementary feeding practices through assuring good and culture-specific nutrition counselling to mothers of young children with the largest possible use of indigenous micronutrient-rich foodstuffs. - Third World Network Features


The above article first appeared in SUNS (Issue No. 4670).