There may have been only mild surprise at the Swiss headquarters of the giant multi-national company when the news arrived in July about a march of 100 people in Minneapolis urging a boycott of all Nestle’s products.
Over the last three years, Nestle has come under growing criticism by church, women’s and other citizen action groups for the disastrous consequences to infants from its hard-sell of baby formula in Asian, African and South American countries. Similar criticism has been directed to other corporations, principally Borden, American Home Products, Bristol-Myers and Abbott Laboratories. The relentless objective of these companies is to sell their bottle formulas to the parents of the third world.
They see a bottle boom in the baby boom of these impoverished countries. There is one major obstacle in the way of their myopic greed — a venerable convenience food called mother’s milk. So an intricate mass promotional campaign has been developed and honed to manipulative perfection.
INFANT FORMULAS have been associated with modernity and higher status. Messages on billboards, pictures in magazines and jingles on the radio convey an implication that breastfeeding is a thing of the past and bottle feeding the wave of the future. An implication is even conveyed about the possible inadequacy of mother’s milk; bottle feeding is associated with health and vague medicinal properties.
Nestle uses “milk nurses” or “mothercraft workers” dressed in white who go to hospitals, homes and clinics to teach new mothers about the superiority of the company’s formula. Free samples are widely distributed. Physicians and hospitals are courted with booklets, films and slides, along with more free samples.
Recent international criticism by nutritionists, pediatricians, church groups and United Nations health advisers have caused some of the more blatant promotions to be toned down. But the marketing mania persists with macabre success.
In 1950, 95 percent of Chilean mothers breast-fed their babies beyond their first year; now only 20 percent of the babies are being nursed for as long as 60 days. The trend in other poor countries is in that direction.
THE INTERFAITH Center on Corporate Responsibility, a group related to the National Council of Churches, cites studies and affidavits from many countries in the Third World confirming the ways in which bottle-feeding has resulted in greater infant disease, malnutrition and mortality.
Here are the reasons for their grief. The use of infant formula requires sanitary water, bottles and nipples. Lacking these conditions, the formula can become a deadly transmitter of severe bacterial infections leading to diarrhea, dehydration and death. Moreover, infant formula is very expensive to the poor. So mothers dilute it to make it last longer. A report from Barbados showed 82 percent of the mothers diluting the formula to make a four-day supply stretch anywhere from five days to three weeks. The water to do this stretching is often contaminated.
According to the United Nations Protein Advisory Group, the cost of feeding a six-month-old baby on bottled formula would take 23 percent of a Peruvian family’s income, 47 percent in Nigeria, and 62 percent in Pakistan. No wonder the incentive to dilute is strong.
IN 1974, A Consumers Union-sponsored study stated: “When breast feeding was widespread among the poor, malnutrition usually did not become severe until the second year of a child’s life. But the decline of breast feeding over the past two decades has caused the average age of children suffering from severe forms of malnutrition to drop from 18 to eight months in some parts of the world. This age drop is critical, because of the potential effects of malnutrition in the first year of life on brain development.”
Other surveys have shown death rates to be higher and earlier in age for infants on formula as compared with breast-fed babies.
The companies’ standard reply is to deny any intent to cause these tragedies. They say they sell a good product and cannot be held responsible for contaminated use by consumers. But unofficially, some of the companies’ executives are realizing that such contamination is very foreseeable, documentable and serious.
From the standpoint of the economies of these less-developed countries, importing these expensive formulas costs them over $1 billion a year, according to Brookings Institution economist Alan Berg. As a start, Algeria has simply banned imports of any labeled formula products.
The Third World Institute (1701 University Ave. SE, Minneapolis, Minn. 55414) asks the basic question: “Why should companies persuade mothers in developing nations to buy a product which (1) they can’t afford; (2) is unnecessary; and (3) is actually jeopardizing the health of their babies?”
This corporate marketing in misery to denigrate and replace breast milk is likely to become a major cause in the corporate responsibility movement throughout the world. Readers interested in obtaining information, bibliographies and other references should write to the Third World Institute at the above address.