Governments under pressure to abandon WHO marketing code

When in 1981 the World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, it was clearly intended that the Code should be incorporated by all member states into their own national legislation in order to promote the breastfeeding of babies and prevent milk companies from pressuring mothers into using milk substitutes in lieu. At the recent WHA in Geneva, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), which has been working for many years to assist governments to implement the Code, charged that the baby food companies have been putting pressure on governments to abandon legislation designed for this purpose. Below is the text of an IBFAN briefing presented at the Assembly.

THE World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes as a 'minimum requirement' to be adopted by 'all member its entirety'. Subsequent Resolutions have clarified articles in the International Code in light of ongoing scientific investigation and to address questions of interpretation.

Under Article 18 of the constitution of the World Health Organisation, subsequent Resolutions have the same status as the International Code. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) has been working for many years to assist governments in implementing these measures.

The examples below show how the baby food industry is stepping up its lobbying of governments by falsely portraying the International Code and the Resolutions as a maximum requirement. Governments have the sovereign right to adopt any laws which they think are necessary to protect infant health and to put any child- feeding product within the scope of their national regulations or laws.

Companies use trade threats in Zimbabwe

In March, the press in Zimbabwe reported that the law implementing the International Code and Resolutions had been postponed following pressure from manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes. A consortium of manufacturers lobbied Parliament by saying, 'The regulations are not supportive to economic growth and development. They also do not support trade liberalisation and foreign investment.'

The report stated that Nestle 'threatened to pull out investment in Zimbabwe, arguing that it would not be economically viable for the company to continue operating under such regulations'. The report continued, 'Managing Director of Nestle Zimbabwe, Mr Chris Cary said if the proposed regulations were implemented sales and future investments of the company would be negatively affected.'


The Government of Pakistan is on the verge of introducing a law which will prevent companies from promoting their products to mothers and allow only scientific and factual information to be provided to health workers. The draft law reflects the provisions of the International Code and subsequent, relevant Resolutions. Nestle, however, wrote to the Secretary of Health on 27 November 1997 to protest against the law, describing it as 'impractical and not workable and therefore bereft of any support from...the industry'.

The company argued against the ban on advertising and promotion contained in the law and did not agree that the body to be responsible for monitoring the law should be independent of industry. It also attacked other provisions relating to labelling, even though these reflect policies adopted by the WHA.

HIV invoked in South Africa

For many years, the South African Government has been drafting a national infant and young child nutrition policy. Because the industry has been invited to be part of this process, the finalisation of the policy has been considerably delayed. In the summer of 1997, the baby food companies in South Africa formed an agency, called the 'Freedom of Commercial Speech Trust', which is lobbying to stop the International Code and Resolutions being implemented in law in South Africa on the basis that commercial advertising of bottle-feeding has an important role to play in the education of parents who are infected with HIV.

Nestle has called for a meeting with the South African Provincial Health Ministry for Gauteng Province, which includes Johannesburg, to discuss implementation of the national code. Nestle's activities in South Africa were highlighted in the report Cracking the Code published last year and included promotion (by free samples, gifts and direct contact with mothers) of infant formula and other products.

Sri Lanka's revised law

In a letter dated 15 August 1997, Nestle requested a meeting with the Sri Lanka Government to lay out its concerns over the Government's review of the Sri Lanka Code for the Promotion and Protection of Breast Feeding and Marketing of Infant Formulae and Related Products. The meeting took place on 4 December. Nestle complained that:

  • the scope is too broad, covering 'milk products, manufactured foods and beverages when marketed or used for infant feeding' (meaning children up to the age of one year).

  • labels are to be in three languages (as they are in Switzerland).

  • information distributed by the baby-feeding industry is to be restricted.

  • baby-feeding companies will be prohibited from providing support to health professionals or medical researchers.

  • the industry has not been invited to participate in a government monitoring system.


Even though it has been told by the Gabon Ministry of Health that its marketing practices are unacceptable, Nestle has stated that it will not change its ways. The current dispute is over the marketing of Cerelac, a complementary food. The World Health Assembly stated in 1994 that complementary feeding should be fostered from about the aged six months, emphasising continued breastfeeding and use of local foods. Over-dilution of expensive processed foods such as Cerelac can be a cause of malnutrition and use of unsafe water puts infants at risk.

Nestle has been lobbying the Government of Gabon since at least 1991 for permission to advertise Cerelac on television. The Government has consistently refused. After having received a further request in June 1997, the Ministry reminded Nestle of the letters it had already sent and repeated its request that Nestle stop the promotion of Cerelac to mothers and health professionals at public and private hospitals by methods including film-shows, free samples and gifts.

In response to criticism from the Ministry, in July 1997 Nestle proclaimed that it is a respected international company with the highest standards of morality and ethics. It then stated that it intends to disregard the Government's requirements as it does not believe Cerelac is covered by the International Code. In April 1998, Nestle appealed for a meeting.


In February 1998, Nestle attempted to undermine implementation of the International Code and Resolutions in Swaziland. Fortunately, representatives of IBFAN Africa were invited to attend the meeting between the Ministry of Health, Swaziland and Nestle, during which the company argued for weak controls. It appears that Nestle's moves were ineffective in this case.


On 30 April 1998, Nestle wrote to the Minister of Health, Uruguay, calling for the national law to be limited to the International Code as published in 1981. The letter strongly attacks the subsequent Resolutions and argues against any further Resolutions on this issue being adopted by the WHA.


While undergoing trial in respect of allegations regarding violations of the Indian Infant Milk Substitutes Act, Nestle has challenged the Act with a Writ Petition. (Third World Resurgence No. 95, July 1998)