Is history bunk? A work of fiction, written by, and flattering to, the powerful, rather than the facts?
I often ponder this when seeing how Nestlé tries to deceive over events I have observed closely. Some believe Nestlé’s version because they know no better. How much is that true of what we think we know about the past?
An example today prompts me to think of this again. Nestlé and the Church of England. In Nestlé’s telling of history, the Church of England investigated Nestlé’s marketing and decided not to renew its support of the boycott at its Synod meeting in 1997.
In truth, the independent research arranged by the Church of England found ‘systematic’ violations by Nestlé and other companies and UNICEF said our monitoring was ‘vindicated’. Though the boycott was not supported, action by other means was demanded.
Historians are used to examining the documentary evidence and that is the bed rock of Baby Milk Action’s work. So with this re-writing of history cropping up again, I’ve posted key source documents on the Baby Milk Action website. You can find them in the Your Questions Answered section at:
As I’ve remarked before, it sometimes appears easier to assert an untruth than to tell the truth. The truth can take longer. I’ve tried to set out the documents on the website. Here, to save you downloading the source documents yourself, are some key quotes and facts. And some of the back story, because I was there for some of it.
The Church of England Synod voted to support the boycott in 1991. It had a measurable effect. In 1992 Nescafé sales fell by 3%. In 1993 Nestlé increased its Nescafé advertising spend by 75% to 14 million pounds. Nestlé's profits were hit. And while Nestlé sometimes attacks the boycott as being a threat to jobs, no-one was dismissed. Indeed jobs may even have been created in advertising as Nestlé tried to regain market share. (Figures from MEAL and A.C. Neilson).
In 1994 there was a move by the Oxford Diocese for the Church to sell its Nestlé shares. Nestlé went into overdrive, making statements at the Synod meeting where this was discussed that were demonstrably untrue and denounced not just by Baby Milk Action, but by development agency experts.
It was enough to muddy the waters, however, and the Synod voted to suspend the boycott while gathering evidence independently of Baby Milk Action and the International Baby Food Action Network, to which we belong.
The Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring (IGBM) was formed, consisting of 27 church, academic and development organisations. IGBM arranged research in Bangladesh, Poland, South Africa and Thailand. It concluded: "The research proves that many companies are taking action which violates the Code, and in a systematic rather than one-off manner."
Companies were found to be promoting artificial infant feeding in breach of the marketing code. The main companies at fault were Nestle, Gerber (now part of Nestlé), Nutricia and Wyeth. The scale of the violations was shocking:
* promotion was found in retail outlets and the media in all four countries
* company personnel visited health facilities univited in each country to make contact with mothers and to give inducements to health professionals for promoting company products
* information leaflets were given to mothers which promoted bottle feeding or discouraged breastfeeding (more than a third of mothers in Poland reported such information)
* mothers and health facilities were provided with free samples or supplies (ranging from 7.5% of health facilities in Bangladesh to 50% of those in Thailand)
According to the report "...a strong correlation was found in all four countries between the proportion of mothers who received negative information associated with a company name and the proportion who bottle fed their infants."
I attended the launch in January 1997. It was a few months after I had joined Baby Milk Action and we had not a clue what the report would say. Other than the knowledge that if they had done their work properly they would have found widespread and institutionalised malpractice. As anyone who does a proper job will.
You can download UNICEF’s statement from our website. I scanned the document from the files today. UNICEF reminded people that: “Marketing practices that undermine breastfeeding are potentially hazardous wherever they are pursued: in the developing world, WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. These facts are not in dispute.”
UNICEF commented not only the violations documented in a report published as Cracking the Code, but on the industry attack on the research.
The industry – principally Nestlé – went to extraordinary lengths to attack the findings and the research protocol. The industry had been invited by IGBM to comment on the protocol before it was used, but failed to do so, so it was a typically dishonest attack. If you want to know the details, see our analysis from the time at:
UNICEF stated: “It is also noteworthy that the findings of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), in its regular monitoring activities, are clearly vindicated by this report.”
The Synod met in July that year in York. I went along with Patti, our Policy Director. A fascinating experience. There were those campaigning for infants and mothers, such as the Bishop of Conventry, Simon Barrington-Ward.
There was Nestlé with a hospitality room and a new ‘Charter’ setting out is ‘infant formula marketing policy for developing countries’ (this is the ‘Charter’ that was later the subject of one of our successful complaints before the Advertising Standards Authority after Nestlé referred to it in an anti-boycott advertisement).
Nestlé resorted to leafleting Synod members as they arrived for the meeting, a rather bizarre turnaround.
There were also Synod members who were fighting Nestlé’s corner and using procedural methods (specifically calling for a ‘vote by houses’) to try to undermine anything critical of Nestlé. I remember sitting next to someone from Ashbourne at a presentation of the Cracking the Code report who was sensitive to Nestlé on the basis it employed people in her town. Nestlé has not shown the same loyalty, closing down its operations there a few years ago.
Nestlé tried all sorts of tricks to divert criticism. For example, it suggested the free supplies of infant formula found by IGBM in Thailand were for HIV-infected mothers. The Bishop of Coventry spoke in the debate and said he had communicated with someone in UNICEF Thailand and found the number of HIV cases were far less than the amount of formula found.
Nestlé also made an important policy shift because of its fear of the boycott being reinstated.
Various Resolutions had been adopted since the 1981 marketing code, to address questions of interpretation and changes in scientific knowledge and marketing practices. Nestlé refused to accept the validity of these. It even attacked them in its PR materials. At Synod, for the first time, it acknowledged the Resolutions. Not that it agreed to change its policies to bring them into line (it was during national demonstrations we held in 2003 that Nestlé at last agreed to respect, to some degree, provisions in a 1994 Resolution).
Synod supported the official motion condemning company malpractice and calling for companies to comply and for action by governments.
There was a move from the floor to try to reinstate the boycott, but this did not have official support. It was argued that the Church Commissioners would use investment in Nestlé to ‘engage’ and encourage change. To my mind, there was official reluctance to support the boycott again because the calls for disinvestment would return, and even more loudly. Once money enters the picture, holding to a moral and ethical line seems to be more complicated. So the boycott was not renewed. We subsequently reported violations to the Church Commissioners, but cannot say we ever heard a report back about Nestlé’s response when these were raised, or that they were raised.
The Church of England issued a press release after the Synod. It can be downloaded from our website and makes interesting reading for anyone under the impression that the Synod refused to renew the boycott because Nestlé had changed its practices. This is what it states:
"The main conclusion of the report is that major manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes continue to contravene the international code of marketing of breastmilk substitutes thereby jeopardising the lives of infants. Violations include the donation of free samples, the publication of information materials which undermine breastfeeding and unsolicited visits by company representatives to health facilities."
This is the text of the resolution actually passed by Synod:
That this Synod
a) affirm the need to promote infant and maternal health by all available means;
b) affirm the conclusions of the report Cracking the Code, produced by the Interagency Group on Breastfeeding Monitoring, its emphasis on the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, and the subsequent resolutions of the World Health Assembly which clarify and amplify the Code;
c) endorse the efforts of UNICEF and the World Health Organisation to achieve universal implementation of the Code and Resolutions;
d) call upon all national governments to establish the legal basis and adequate instruments to ensure national compliance with the Code and Resolutions; and
e) call upon the manufacturers of breastmilk substitutes and health workers to ahere fully to the letter and spirit of the Code and Resolutions.
So Synod affirmed that the companies exposed in the report, including Nestlé, were responsible for ‘systematic’ violations and called upon them to comply with the Code and Resolutions.
That is what the history should tell us.
IGBM went on to meet with the International Association of Infant Food Manufacturers (IFM). It found that IFM insisted the implementation of the Code is a matter of national government legislation. Whereas the Code is very clear in Article 11.3 that companies should ensure their activities comply independently of government measures.
IGBM broke off discussions with IFM, stating: “… it is clear that your position is so at variance with ours in terms of acceptance of the International Code that there are, at present, no grounds for embarking on further discussion or meetings.”
Nestlé met with UNICEF at the end of 1997, accepting its request to set out its marketing practices. This prompted a letter from UNICEF saying Nestlé’s policies were not in line with the marketing requirements adopted by the World Health Assembly and concluded:
Our meeting thus regrettably reconfirmed the historic and on-going divergence between the best interests of children as represented by UNICEF and those of the infant feeding industry. As you well know, we have endeavoured in the past, unsuccessfully, to resolve those differences. It continues to be clear that the divergent views are simply not reconcilable in specific and critical areas.
Therefore, much as we appreciate the opportunity to have had the meeting, it does not seem to us to be useful to maintain such contact in the future.
So that is what happened. Systematic violations were found. Discussions with the industry and Nestlé in particular got nowhere and were suspended.
The boycott continues. And continues to force changes.
Nestlé should not be permitted to turn history into bunk.
We have a duty to remember.