Child labor, unethical promotion, manipulating uneducated mothers, pollution, price fixing and mislabeling – those are not words you want to see associated with your company. Nestle is the world’s largest foodstuff company, and it has a history that would make even Hardc0re industrialists shiver. We’re gonna look at why Nestle has such a bad reputation and whether or not it deserves it.
People love to hate, and they really love to hate on big companies – whether or not they have a reason to. I especially dislike it when the latter happens. Companies (big companies included) are the very backbone of our economy, and they often get a bad rep for little or no reason. But sometimes there is a reason, or as in this case, several solid reasons, as we’ll see below.
Which brings me to the next point: why are we writing this article? ZME Science is a science website (crazy, right?), and this is not strictly science, at least not in the way our regular articles are. But we also write about environmental issues, especially when they affect many of us, and especially when we can make a difference.
Nestle is a Swiss multinational food and beverage company. According to Wikipedia, their products include baby food, bottled water, breakfast cereals, coffee and tea, confectionery, dairy products, ice cream, frozen food, pet foods, and snacks. Twenty-nine of their brands have sales of over $1 billion a year and have over 8,000 brands
They have 447 factories across 194 countries and employ around 333,000 people. They truly are what you would call a giant. They’re also considered to be one of the best employers in Europe with six LEED certifications and sponsor numerous activities and sustainable projects. Looking at only these stats, it would seem that Nestle is one of the “good guys”… but then why are they so hated? Let’s take it step by step.
BABY FORMULA AND BOYCOTT
We’re in the ’90s, and this is a sad story about poverty, Brea5tfeeding, and greed. Nestle aggressively pushed their Brea5tfeeding formula in less economically developed countries (LEDCs), specifically targeting the poor. They made it seem that their infant formula was almost as good as a mother’s milk, which is highly unethical for several reasons.
The first problem was the need for water sanitation. Most of the groups they were targeting – especially in Africa – didn’t have access to clean water (many don’t to this day), so it was necessary for them to boil the water. But due to low literacy rates, many mothers were not aware of this, so they mixed the formula with polluted water which put the children at great risks. Nestle seems to have knowingly ignored this and encouraged mothers to use the formula even when they knew the risks.
Brea5tfeeding, one of the most important aspects for an infant, especially in unsanitized areas, was cast aside. Baby formula was “the nearest thing in the world”, and this “splendid triumph of care and science” is “so like mother’s milk that the tiny stomach won’t notice the difference”. But the tiny stomach did notice the difference.
“Brea5tfeeding is unparalleled in providing the ideal food for infants.The optimal way to feed a baby is exclusive Brea5tfeeding for the first six months followed by Brea5tfeeding combined with complementary foods until the child is two years old…” – a 2007 Save the Children report.
Many mothers were able to read in their native language but were still unable to read the language in which sterilization directions were written. Even if mothers understood the need to boil the water, they might not have had the facilities to do so. UNICEF estimates that a formula-fed child living in disease-ridden and unhygienic conditions is between 6 and 25 times more likely to die of diarrhea and four times more likely to die of pneumonia than a Brea5tfed child. Another problem was that mothers tended to use less formula than needed – to make the jar last longer, resulting in many infants receiving inadequate amounts.
But even if the water was boiled, and even if the formula was administered in the right proportion and in the right quantity, it is lacking in many of the nutrients and antibodies that Brea5t milk provides. Brea5t milk contains the required amount of the nutrients essential for neuronal (brain and nerve) development, and to some extent, protects the baby from many diseases and potential infections.
According to the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), Nestle used unethical methods to promote their infant formula to poor mothers in developing countries. But it gets even worse.
RACHAEL ROMERO, SAN FRANCISCO POSTER BRIGADE
BOYCOTT NESTLE, 1978
COURTESY INKWORKS PRESS ARCHIVE, BERKELEY, CA
IBFAN claims that Nestle distributes free formula samples to hospitals and maternity wards; after leaving the hospital, the formula is no longer free, but because the supplementation has interfered with lactation, the family must continue to buy the formula. Nestle denies those allegations… sort of.
“Nestlé takes reports on non-compliance with the WHO Code very seriously and we have endeavored to investigate all allegations brought to our attention, despite the fact that in many cases we are not provided with accurate details substantiating the accusations. This makes it difficult for us to investigate how, where and when the alleged infringement could have occurred. Some of the allegations are several years old before they are brought to public attention, which also could complicate the investigation.”
Back then, Nestlé’s response was that their critics should focus on doing something to improve unsafe water supplies, which contributed to the health problems associated with bottle feeding. They also later used this approach to promote their bottled water. As The Guardian puts it, “its huge marketing budgets clearly influence peoples’ behaviour, even if direct causality can’t be demonstrated.”
Today, several countries and organizations are still boycotting Nestle, despite their claims to be in compliance with WHO regulations. There’s even a committee, the International Nestlé Boycott Committee that monitors their practices. Several universities and student organizations have also joined the boycott, especially in the UK.
There is no clear, public number of lives that were lost due to this aggressive marketing campaign, and of course, Nestle is not directly responsible for their tragedies. But it was easy for them, as it was easy for everybody to see the risks and the negative effects their formula was having. It was easy for them to save many lives, but they chose the money instead. Profits before children – check. Let’s move on.