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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Universities Play Footsie with Company Labeled ‘Baby Killer’

IT is a company that has been the subject of an international boycott for over 23 years – perhaps the longest standing boycott of a global corporation. It has been labeled by activist organisations as a “baby killer” for persistent unethical marketing of breast milk substitutes. Yet the same company, media reports indicate, has signed a memorandum of understanding with four public sector educational institutions. Recent reports in the press (Times of India, dated January 1, 2011) suggest that Nestle India, a 61.9 per cent subsidiary of Nestle  S A  of  Switzerland, signed an MOU with Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) Ludhiana; National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, Haryana; University of Mysore in Karnataka; and the GB Pant University for Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand. Under the MoU, Nestle staff along with the faculty of these universities launched a “nutrition education” programme. This joint initiative, it is understood, was launched in April 2009 by minister of state for rural development Agatha Sangma along with Nestle India chairman Helio Waszyk.


The story gets murkier still. PAU has refused to give information about the MoU and the details of the nutrition education programme, in response to a RTI application. It has now been reported that information about the MoU was refused as the MoU itself states that: "This MoU, its existence and all information exchanged between the parties under this MoU or during the negotiations preceding this MoU is confidential to them and may not be shared with a third party. The Times of India reports that the head of the department of nutrition in PAU, Dr J K Sangha, actually wrote to Nestle seeking its permission to reply to the RTI petition. In his reply dated July 1, 2010, the senior manager of corporate affairs in Nestle, Ajay Pal Singh Kang, wrote back stating: "We wish to inform you that all contents of the programme being conducted jointly by PAU and Nestle India have been specially developed by scientists and experts to be used exclusively to carry out the set objectives of the MoU. The contents of the programme are of commercial and confidential nature and the disclosure of which may harm our competitive position…Therefore, we are constrained to decline our consent for the supply or disclosure, to any third party, of any information or document pertaining to this joint collaboration."

The obvious question that needs to be asked is why a programme on “nutrition education” should be shrouded in such secrecy, and further what could be the “commercial and confidential” nature of such a programme. The questions are particularly important given that the company involved is Nestle. The UK based Corporate Watch website says: The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that 1.5 million infants die each year because of inappropriate feeding, because children vulnerable to disease are being bottle-fed on breast milk substitutes rather than breastfed whenever possible. As the world's largest artificial baby milk producer controlling 40 per cent of the market, NestlĂ© has been seen as a leading cause of this catastrophe..


Responding to global concerns about the unethical nature of marketing of breast milk substitutes, the WHO in 1981 formulated the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. India formulated its own law, keeping in mind the provisions of the code, in 1992. The Act, known as the Infant Milk Substitutes Act (IMS) was further strengthened through amendments in 2003.

The WHO code includes several acts that baby food companies such as Nestle should not do:
         promote their products in hospitals, shops or to the general public;
         give free samples to mothers or free or subsidised supplies to hospitals or maternity wards;
         give gifts to health workers or mothers;
         promote their products to health workers: any information provided by companies must contain only scientific and factual matters;
         promote foods or drinks for babies;
         give misleading information

The code further says that:
         There should be no contact between baby milk company sales personnel and mothers.
         Labels must be in a language understood by the mother and must include a clear health warning.
         Baby pictures may not be shown on baby milk labels.
         The labels must not include language which idealises the use of the product.

Nestle has been singled out, internationally, as the biggest violator of this code. In 2004, monitoring results from 69 countries showed up over 2,000 violations of the code, and NestlĂ© was found responsible for more violations than any other company. But then, this is befitting of a company that takes pride in being the world's largest and most “diversified food company” in the world, with around 2,50,000 employees worldwide, 500 factories in approximately 100 countries and offering over 8,000 products to millions of consumers universally. In India, Nestle markets its products in four key categories – milk products, beverages, prepared dishes and  cooking aids, chocolates & confectionery. Nestle has been the market leader with 70 per cent share in the Rs 1000 crore instant noodles market and in the infant baby food segment.  Outside the baby food market, Nestle’s prominent brands include Nescafe, Maggi and KitKat.


Faced with negative publicity and legal measures instituted in many countries, companies such as Nestle have consistently tried to circumvent the WHO code and country laws. A regular ploy has been to resort to double standards while advertising its products --  ie advertise the same product differently in countries of the North and the South. In 2008, Nestle was caught out when an advertisement for Maggie Noodles claimed it strengthened muscles and bones. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) banned the advertisement in the UK and said that it was deceptive and violated the UK’s strict industry code. Nestle, claimed that their products that were due to appear in Bangladesh had been accidentally aired in Britain!

Another common ploy has been to tie up with professional organisations on issues that would appear to be of “public interest”, and thereby try to influence them. To do so, in India, Nestle uses a surrogate front organisation – the Nestle Nutrition Institute. The Breast Promotion Network of India (the Indian Chapter of the International Breast Feeding Action Network) reported last year that the Institute had sponsored conferences of doctors in Kolkata and Chennai on “Emerging Trends in Pediatric Nutrition”. Such sponsorships clearly violate provisions of the Infant Milk Substitutes Act in India.

This is by no means an isolated instance. Last year the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Education & Research (PGIMER) in Chandigarh was embroiled in a similar controversy. Nestle Nutrition Institute had been listed as one of the sponsors of the 16th annual conference on nutrition sponsored by the Indian Society for Parenteral and Enteral Nutrition (ISPEN). The sponsorship deal was called off at the last moment when the matter was made public by the Breast Feeding Promotion Network in India. The issue had even prompted the secretaries of the ministries of health and women and child development to write a joint letter asking for a ban on sponsorship by baby food manufacturers or their front organisations of health workers, doctors or meetings of their associations. The letter had pointed out numerous instances of corporate sponsorship and unethical practices such as:  offering to set up libraries in medical colleges; approaching paediatricians and providing them with gifts and also distributing infant feeding booklets with misleading information on infant feeding in several hospitals, etc.

Nestle has resorted to unethical tactics to promote its other products as well. In 2010 Nestle was made to withdraw TV commercials aired between April and June, by the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). ASCI decreed that Nestle Maggi Ketchup's claims of being healthy was misleading – Nestle’s commercial showed an obese and aged gentleman consuming unhealthy burgers with claims of "Make India Healthy."  


Clearly, Nestle has a colourful track record that should have prompted public institutions to think twice before deciding to play footsie. This is not just a conflict of interest issue. It goes beyond and involves vexing issues that are seen to arise today as educational institutions are being forced to raise extra resources, and thereby making themselves available for predation by commercial interests. But then, one can argue that in today’s climate corporate interests rank way above public interest – even when they put into jeopardy the lives of countless infants. 

Note : *Article published in  written by Amit Sen Gupta