In the 1970s and '80s, Nestlé was widely criticized and effectively boycotted for marketing infant formula in developing countries without clean water and where mothers couldn't afford to use the formula as directed. This resulted in the deaths of thousands of babies. Though relevant marketing laws have been enacted, Nestlé still isn't doing much good.

Nestlé is the world's largest food company. A global operation headquartered in Switzerland, the company sold $94 billion worth of food products in 2011. The Nestlé website states that "food and nutrition are the basis of health and of our business" and that they are "committed to supporting healthy living, leading the way in innovation and health science nutrition, and making better products for our customers." They refer to themselves as the "leading Nutrition, Health and Wellness company" (source).

Nestlé spearheaded marketing efforts that convinced people in "third-world" countries that formula was superior to breast milk in nutrition and benefit to babies. As a result, hundreds of thousands of infants died.

Nestlé has also been one of the most controversial food corporations. In the mid-1970s, activist groups targeted Nestlé for its aggressive marketing of formula in hospitals and media in developing countries. In short, Nestlé spearheaded marketing efforts that convinced people in "third-world" countries that formula was superior to breast milk in nutrition and benefit to babies. As a result, hundreds of thousands of infants died. Because families in these countries could barely afford formula, they often diluted it extensively, making a can of formula that should last three days extend to two weeks or more (sometimes to feed more than one child). Of course, this resulted in seriously malnourished infants. Further, many of these countries did not have reliable clean water sources, resulting in the spread of dangerous diseases.

After the British organization War on Want released a report called "The Baby Killer" in 1974, a boycott of Nestlé spread from the U.S. to Switzerland, and in 1981 the World Health Organization (WHO) "recommended the adoption of an international code of conduct to govern the promotion and sale of breast milk substitutes" (source).

Necessary changes

After initially fighting against protesters and the boycott, Nestlé eventually adopted WHO's marketing code, and the boycott was called off in 1984. This should have marked the end of the controversy, but in 1988 the protest resumed because it was found that Nestlé was violating the code by distributing free formula samples in hospitals. In 1997, "the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring issued a report providing more evidence that Nestlé and other companies were violating the code" and in May 2007, The Guardian "published an investigation focusing on Bangladesh that found evidence that companies such as Nestlé were still engaging in questionable infant-formula marketing practices" (source).

While the diseases are now obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the issues about the food industry's responsibility remain the same: its huge marketing budgets clearly influence peoples' behaviour, even if direct causality can't be demonstrated.

In April 2012, Nestlé gained even more power in the formula world by purchasing Pfizer's infant formula branch for $11 billion. Some argue that the formula controversy has "just grown up" rather than gone away. Mike Muller of London's The Guardian states: "While the diseases are now obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the issues about the food industry's responsibility remain the same: its huge marketing budgets clearly influence peoples' behaviour, even if direct causality can't be demonstrated."

In addition to the formula/food controversy, Nestlé is now being criticized for "selling less expensive water in poor countries in the late 1990s," which "critics charged that the ready availability of bottled water, which the company sold under the name Nestlé Pure Life, would make the governments of those countries less inclined to invest in the infrastructure needed for reliable public water systems" (source).

So what do we do?

I wrote this article because I have friends who avoid buying Nestlé products and I wanted to do some research myself. There is still an active boycott of Nestlé products, which you can read about here, and many groups are working toward legislation that will govern unethical marketing practices by formula companies.

Personally, my family will work to avoid Nestlé products and spread the word about their marketing of formula. With my first and second babies, we were handed a "congratulations" bag on the way out of the hospital with a bunch of formula samples. I have long believed that such practices, along with poor understanding of how breastfeeding works, have contributed to low numbers of breastfeeding women.

If Baby gets fed from a bottle, she may reject the breast or nurse half-heartedly, which in fact can result in no milk or low milk, and the beginning of a formula-fed baby.

I'm always surprised to learn how many people don't know that it can take up to five days for milk to come in, and babies are just fine subsisting on colostrum until then. I've heard of women waiting 48 hours or less for their milk and determining it "won't come in" and their baby is "hungry." Enter the trusty formula sample. The problem with this is that the baby is hungry and wants milk, which is important because it makes him nurse harder and harder, and this makes the milk come in. If Baby gets fed from a bottle, she may reject the breast or nurse half-heartedly, which in fact can result in no milk or low milk, and the beginning of a formula-fed baby.

For this reason, I will do my best to avoid Nestlé brands, which you can find here.

Sometimes it feels daunting, as if there's no way one person could make a difference with a company so big, but change has to start somewhere, and considering how far we've come with breastfeeding rates since the 1970s, it's clear that change is possible.

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