The milk of human kindness

(Assembled from information in Private Eye 1051 and other sources.)

Nestlé make a lot of money from baby milk formula. The company promotes its product as clean and modern, compared to that messy breast-feeding process. It gives away free samples to new parents.

From a marketing perspective, this is really smart. If the parents try the baby milk formula for a while, the mother will stop lactating, and soon they’ll have no choice but to buy formula.

From a public health perspective, it’s a bit of a disaster. The problem is, Nestlé promotes sales of baby milk formula in countries where clean water is hard to come by, and gives generous samples of formula to poor parents who probably don’t have access to sterile water. A lot of babies die of chronic diarrhea as a result. Over a million a year, according to the World Health Organization.

One such country is Pakistan. Syed Aamar Raza was an employee of Nestlé Pakistan. He claims that Nestlé repeatedly broke the WHO’s code of practice [PDF] by directly marketing bottle feeding as a safe alternative to breast milk. He also claims that employees’ bonuses were linked to sales of infant formula, and that they were ordered to give gifts to doctors and to approach mothers at baby shows. All of those practices are frowned upon by the WHO as well.

Raza says he first experienced serious doubt about his choice of career when a doctor who failed to save a baby dying of diarrhea told him that the child had died as a result of marketing by people like him. He resigned, issued a legal notice calling on Nestlé to stop breaking the WHO code, and published his allegations via Baby Milk Action and a Pakistani affiliate called Network.

Raza claims that his group manager responded by threatening to have him killed, and his family kidnapped, unless he stopped publicizing Nestlé’s actions. On February 26th 2000, shots were fired at Raza’s home in Sialkot, Pakistan. Baby Milk Action asked Nestlé to put out a short statement officially condemning the attack. Instead, the corporation issued a statement saying that the attack had never happened. Raza has been in hiding ever since.

In February 2000, Raza met with the UK Labour peer Lord Ahmed, who seemed sympathetic to his case. On February 29th, Raza gave a presentation at a public meeting arranged by Labour MP Neil Gerrard.

By the end of 2000, things were rather different. Lord Ahmed offered to put Nestlé’s side of the story at a European parliament hearing, and went on a fact-finding jaunt to Nestlé’s Pakistan operation. Nestlé claims that Raza is attempting to blackmail them, and Lord Ahmed says that he has a tape backing up that allegation.

Curiously, Nestlé and Lord Ahmed have refused to release the tape.

In totally unrelated news, Lord Ahmed has announced that he plans to take a paid position on the Nestlé board, as an advisor on international affairs.

Nestlé’s brands include Aero, After Eights, Baby Ruth, Baci Chocolate, Buitoni, Buitoni, Butterfinger, Carnation, Cheerios, Coffee-mate, Gold Blend, Juicy Juice, Kit Kat, L’Oreal, Lancôme, Lean Cuisine, Libby’s, Maybelline, Nescafe, Nesquik, Nestea, Ortega, Perrier, Perugina, Plénitude, PowerBar, Quality Street, Rolo, Shredded Wheat, Stouffer’s, Sun-Pat, Taster’s Choice, Taster’s Choice, Toll House, and Wonka. Something to think about next time you pick up one of those products.