Sunday, October 5, 2014

"Nestle" rhymes with "Nazi"

Back in the 1970's, there was an international outcry against Nestle's sickeningly cynical, profit-driven, economics-based, inhuman policy of getting new mothers in poor countries to abandon feeding their infants with breast milk and convincing them to switch to formula.

They would send women dressed as nurses into hospitals to "counsel" these women; telling them that breast-feeding was fine but infant formula added necessary vitamins and minerals, telling them that infant formula was superior to breast-feeding entirely, telling them that mothers and babies in the rich countries used infant formula and look how great things are for them, ... whatever.

How does a private corporation get to send disguised sales representatives into hospitals on a regular basis? By building extra wings to the hospitals in these poor countries. By giving "gifts" or bribes to hospital administrators or doctors in poor countries.

Now, if you don't know about this scandal and haven't already anticipated it, there's a big problem with convincing new mothers in poor countries to switch from free, healthy breast-milk to infant formula. Infant formula requires money to pay for it. Infant formula requires clean water to be mixed into it. It requires heat to warm it up. It requires literacy to read the portions of formula and water to be mixed. It requires more math if a mother finds herself in the tragic situation of having to dilute it to feed more than one infant (often an impossibility).

So, obviously, it was no surprise that these same hospitals began to fill with dehydrated, malnourished infants. And there was a huge outcry.

When I first read about this scandal, I don't know what I was doing, but I came away from it thinking that the deaths from this policy numbered into either the hundreds or the thousands.  Perhaps the health services in these countries were able to rescue thousands of infants (although the damage at this critical period of these infants' lives had already been done).

Well, in response to the outcry, there was an international campaign against this revolting corporate behaviour:
Nestlé boycotts spread from Switzerland and Britain to the US, where shareholder activism and court challenges against other milk companies – led by the Sisters of the Precious Blood, a religious order working under the umbrella of the Interfaith Centre for Corporate Responsibility – achieved a fine balance between grassroots organising, legal process and catchy communication.
The campaigns attracted wide-spread support from medical professionals, health authorities and civil society in developing countries. So in 1981, the UN World Health Assembly (the governing body of the World Health Organisation) recommended the adoption of an international code of conduct to govern the promotion and sale of breast milk substitutes.
Nestle signed on to this code of conduct. The good guys won, right?

Let's continue. Some time in the 1990's, the newspaper The Hamilton Spectator ran an editorial from some dude, maybe even the CEO, of Nestle Canada. This guy lived in Burlington, which is the nice bedroom community across the harbour from Hamilton. (Although the poor, rich shlubs who own lakefront property in Burlington are invariably treated to a gorgeous view of Hamilton's steel plants!) So this no doubt well paid high-level executive was blathering on about Nestle's tradition of corporate responsibility and blah, blah, blah, and, obviously, he had to deal with the infant formula scandal. He mentioned the scandal  and then said that it was all based on misunderstandings. And that was the end of his dealing with that scandal. It was about three sentences in a half-page newspaper editorial.

And I was like: "That's it? Your company killed hundreds, maybe thousands of infants, and the best you can say is that it's all a 'misunderstanding'??"

A normal person would think that having contributed to the death of ONE infant (let alone hundreds, or even thousands) would be a big deal, requiring more than just "It was all a big misunderstanding"!

It was then that I looked at this guy's head shot and thought about Adolf Eichmann and his infamous "I was only following orders."

If bought-and-paid-for Supreme Court Justices are going to tell us that corporations are not just legal persons, but actual PEOPLE, with rights to free speech and stuff, why don't we hold them more accountable? Imagine if Nestle appeared on Oprah or something; "Yes. There were those hundreds of infants who died of malnutrition thanks to some scam I started to push more formula in poor countries, ... but I'd like to think I've learned from my mistakes. I've put that all behind me. I hope the people I hurt can find it in their hearts to forgive me. I'm not the person I was then. This is the new me!"

So this Nestle Canada fucker was just taking one for the team. He had his nice house in Burlington, Ontario, Canada (NOT, apparently, Forest Hill, Toronto!) and he was pushing chocolate bars and stuff in Canada and part of his obligations was to sweep his company's mass-murder under the carpet. So he did. And if he's like most people, he no doubt has children, and he no doubt tried (they must be grown up by now) to teach them the difference between right and wrong, but he's a complete failure as a human being when the chips are down.

Years later, it's the internet age, and for one reason or another I look up this scandal again. I don't remember where I found the info then, but here it is now:
"The results can be seen in the clinics and hospitals, the slums and graveyards of the Third World," said War on Want. "Children whose bodies have wasted away until all that is left is a big head on top of the shriveled body of an old man." 
In the Times, United States Agency for International Development official, Dr. Stephen Joseph, blamed reliance on baby formula for a million infant deaths every year through malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. 
It also hindered infant growth in general, said War on Want. Citing "complex links emerging between breast feeding and emotional and physical development," the group said breastfed children walked "significantly better than bottle-fed" kids, and were more emotionally advanced.
A MILLION DEATHS! Every year for years! And, in case you think that left-wing link is playing fast-and-loose with the truth, and that the NY Times link is equivocal about that number, here's the Sydney Morning Herald with corroboration:
A report by Save the Children names a clutch of global brands, including Nestle, Danone, Mead Johnson, Abbott, Friso and Enfamil as being involved in dubious marketing practices.
It estimates 95 babies could be saved every hour, or 830,000 a year, if new mothers across the world breastfed immediately after giving birth.
So, we are talking about millions of lives here. And why am I now talking in the present-tense about Nestle's crimes?

Because they're still going on! Fifteen years after Nestle signed on to the WHO's code of conduct, Sayed Aamir Raza Hussain, was an ambitious young salesman in Pakistan. He lands a job with Nestle as a "medical delegate" from 1994-1997, and begins to raise sales of infant formula through the judicious use of "gifts" to hospital administrators, until one day a doctor brought him face-to-face with the consequences of his actions:
Hussain quit. Then, spurred by his conscience, he went public.
He flew to Europe and released a fulsome account of what he’d done as a Nestlé employee. His report, called Milking Profits, included bank slips, written authorization of gifts for doctors from his supervisor and company invitations to be sponsored guests at medical conferences. 
Now it's time for another one of Nestle's Eichmann's to speak up:
At the time, Nestlé’s spokesperson dismissed Hussain as liar and would-be blackmailer. He said there was a tape that proved it. A German documentary about Hussain was spiked. His credibility was questioned.
And now?
Nestlé Canada’s Catherine O’Brien, whom I contacted, responded that the events in the film “seriously misrepresent the facts about our activities” and that Hussain’s allegations are “not at all consistent with our policy and practices on responsible marketing of breast milk substitutes.”
What are we to make of this? Nestle was pretty well condemned for its methods for getting new mothers in developing countries to opt for infant formula, and its well known that families in developing countries could not read the instructions for the formula (assuming they were printed in their own language!), could not afford adequate amounts of formula, could not ensure the formula was mixed with clean water, could not provide any other means for delivering the immune-builders and other benefits of breast milk that were not in the infant formula.

Let's split the difference between 100 and 1,000,000 deaths caused by these policies and agree that perhaps 100,000 infants a year died of malnutrition and disease because of them.

Without admitting guilt, Nestle agrees to a code of conduct that forbids these practices in 1981. Ten years later, all a Nestle Canada executive has to say for his company is that it was all a misunderstanding. Full stop. What the fuck he meant by that is to be forever a mystery. You'd think he'd want to dispel all these horrible accusations when given a whole half-page newspaper column to tout his corporations' virtues, but apparently all he can say is that empty bit of verbiage.

A few years later, in Pakistan, at least one salesman, with his supervisor's blessings, has decided, all on his own, to engage in the exact same practices that got Nestle a public-relations black-eye in the 1970s? This salesman (and his supervisor) never received any training? They were never told about the international code of conduct they were obliged to follow? Nestle never supervised its sales forces in these countries? Are we to imagine that a second scandal wherein Nestle is found to be pushing formula on women who don't know how to use it, thereby causing thousands of infants' deaths, wasn't an issue for this country, so they sat there in Switzerland counting their profits without a care in the world?

And then, supposedly, this salesman gets the bright idea to quit his sales job and bring all his receipts to tell the world that it was all Nestle's fault when the head office were really innocent little lambs? He decided to tell the world about his own murderous mistakes and pass them off as his corporate masters, because, um ... well, ... you see.

You'll notice that "seriously misrepresents the facts" could mean just about anything. It sounds a bit more professional than "It was all a big misunderstanding" but it's still pretty meaningless.

Now here's the thing. Some women can't breastfeed. Some women can't breastfeed enough. It's difficult. Formula is a lifesaver in many situations. Women in poor countries have it even harder. Besides all the difficulties they share with women in countries like Canada, there's the fact that they themselves might be too malnourished to provide breast milk. They might be too stressed because of the razor's-edge of survival they and their families are on. For truly desperate women, infant formula is the best substitute. For the small demographic of wealthy and middle-class career women, formula might be a welcome alternative to breast-feeding. But even if there are women who are malnourished, surely the answer isn't to go into maternity wards and dupe women otherwise doing fine with breast milk into substituting expensive formula that requires clean water sources that they don't have?

Surely the answer is to feed women too malnourished to produce milk, than to foist expensive formula on everyone without regard for the consequences?

This link shows how Nestle always takes the wrong answer to a genuine problem. Some women too malnourished or stressed to breast-feed? Push formula on every mother in that country! Infants dying from drinking formula made with contaminated water? Take over the water supplies, filter 'em, and then sell them at a gigantic mark-up to those poor people. 

Why am I making the Eichmann/Nazi references? Well, there's the obvious corporate shills who were "only following orders." But there's this whole thing: "This was not our policy!" "We are not responsible!"

How different, really, is all this from "Hitler never signed an order saying to exterminate all the Jews!"?

Holocaust deniers claim that it wasn't six-million Jews deliberately killed by the Nazis who may have expressed their hatred for the Jews in the most explicit terms for years and years. No, no, no.. It was only a few hundred thousand. And what can we expect? The British interred enemy aliens. So did the Americans and the Canadians (especially in the case of the Japanese).  How many of their prisoners would have died if food deliveries and medical supplies were made impossible as a result of massive bombing and an entire nation besieged and then invaded and plundered by enemy armies?

These arguments have an internal plausibility, but then there's the reality of the "Holocaust by Bullets" in the Soviet Union. Supposedly the Nazis filmed themselves stripping thousands of Jews naked and then throwing them in ditches and shooting them all dead. But when it came time for the concentration camps, they had nothing but the best intentions for the people in their care. And then we get the Nazi holocaust deniers cretinous "scientific" disputes about the gas chambers which all turn out to be utter bullshit.

So, now we have this chocolate/infant formula manufacturer that pushed infant formula willy-nilly, for years, throughout the poor countries, not thinking that the people getting the formula could scarcely afford it. Not thinking the families using the formula might not be able to read the instructions. Not thinking that they families had no access to clean water. Not thinking, just pursuing the almighty goddamned dollar.

In this day and age, 830,000 infants are estimated to die each year, due to the lack of breastfeeding. This has been going on since the 1970s. Let's just say 100,000 babies a year have died. Let's say this started in 1970 and ended in the year 2000 (three years after Syed Aamir Raza Hussain quit his job). That's 100,000 babies multiplied by 30 years for 3,000,000 babies.

"But I was just following orders."

Here's a link to the TIFF's feature of "Tigers."

Here's a link to the trailer of "Tigers."


Edstock said...

The there's water. Nestlé wants it all. I believe the is an acquifer north of Toronto that Nestlé has Provincial rights to take something like 2 million liters of water per day — while farmers in the area cannot access the same water.

IIRC, the Nestlé CEO is on record that as far as Nestlé is concerned, access to water is not a human right.

thwap said...


I made a passing reference to water towards the end of the post.

The section where I said there was call for some use of formula as an emergency alternative in cases where new mothers are too malnourished themselves to produce milk.

They took a worthwhile use for their product and exploited that loophole to justify a horrendous policy.

I'd meant to mention that Nestle CEO's asinine statement. I'd wanted to show how he was no doubt arguing some dogmatic interpretation of the "tragedy of the commons," where public goods that belong to nobody in particular, but everyone in common, are wasted because nobody is responsible for them. Therefore (so the argument goes) if things are privatized, somebody will be responsible for them and will steward them properly.

It never occurs to the dunce that depriving people of access to necessities and pricing them beyond their means has always led to misery and death.

The nazis had pseudo-scientific justifications for their barbarism too.

Lastly, I'd meant to say that just as there's no document with Hitler's signature on it, we're unable to see the policy papers from Nestle, mandating these murderous practices.

We're to imaginethat regional sales reps dream up these policies, these exact same methods, decade after decade, all on their own.


greg said...

I think I read that Harper was interested in maternal health or something. Something about babies. I'll have to look it up.

He gave a speech to the UN.

IN any case, I'll call the PMO's office and get this thing straightened out..........

thwap said...

He donated a significant amount of money to that.

Because the optics were good.

But he'd blow $1 billion in a day on a summit where he could strut and preen for an afternoon. So it's really worse than shit.

Also, I think he attached some Christian-fundie restrictions against birth control and abortions in it. Just because.

Anonymous said...

Passed by a group of 30 or so holding signs reading 'abortion kills babies'. Maybe they need to widen their eyes a little


thwap said...


The long and the short of it is that Nestle executives get away with it, decade after decade, and none of them have served a day in prison for it.

It's insane.

Askingtherightquestions said...

Thwap, Edstock is right. they are working on two aquifers in Ontario (with very little publicity) -one in Arkell (just south of Guelph, Ontario) and one near Erin, Ontario. Millions of litres pumped to make bottled water. This is the stuff that Maud Barlow has been railing against - Nestle is definitely a corporate entity to keep a very close eye on!!