Nestle challenged on baby milk health claims

By Lorraine Heller

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Infant formula Health claims Breastfeeding

Food giant Nestle was once more challenged at its AGM in Lausanne last week, as activists again raised the red flag that has been fluttering since the first boycott the company faced three decades ago.

Greenpeace activists cut through the ceiling of the Palais in Lausanne, dropping flyers and absailing above the audience, while shareholders were also addressed by a baby milk activist who claimed the firm is still not abiding by marketing standards adopted by the World Health Assembly.

Patti Rundall, OBE, policy director at Baby Milk Action, said the health claims Nestle was using on its infant formula were misleading and putting the health of babies at risk. She called on Nestle shareholders to “try and find a way to bring an end to this interminable problem that is causing so much harm to children.”

Nestle this morning reiterated to NutraIngredients that it abides by the law in every country where it sells its products.

‘Protect’ is misleading

Rundall, who was able to speak at the shareholder meeting as she owns 200 Nestle shares, said she represented “thousands of citizens and IBFAN (International Baby Food Action Network) groups around the world who monitor the marketing of baby foods”.

Rundall specifically took issue with the health claims being made on the firm’s infant formula and called for the company to remove the ‘Protect’ logo from the product labels. She also said the labels should carry the correct warning language, which alerts parents to potential intrinsic bacterial contamination of the product.

“We want you to improve the quality of your products but please don’t make claims on them. Breast milk substitutes are nothing like breast milk and they should never, ever, carry claims,” ​she told shareholders.

Specifically, the ‘Protect’ logo is damaging as it suggests the formulas ‘protect’ babies who are fed on them. “It is a really misleading thing to say that this product is going to protect your baby from infection when in fact it’s not in dispute that babies fed on formula are far more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, are more likely to die,” ​she said.

Abiding by laws

Nestle said its ‘Protect’ range of products and its infant formulas are sold in over 100 countries around the world. “To date, other than via Baby Milk Action, no other complaint about the logo’s potential to mislead mothers has been received,”​ said the company.

It added that the action group was the only one to be calling for the firm to stop making nutrition and health claims. “Governments are not making these calls, Nestle abides by the law in every country.”​ Nestle said health claim wording varies by country and product. “In general terms infant formula is not covered by the new EU Regulations on Health Claims. This is covered by the EU Infant Formula Directive.”

Throughout most of the 80s and 90s, Nestle was plagued by waves of international boycotts against its products. These were largely linked to the marketing of Nestle’s infant formula, which, it was claimed, encouraged formula feeding above breast-feeding and therefore led to infant health problems and even deaths in developing countries.

Nestle told NutraIngredients that “there has been very little pressure ​(on its infant formula marketing practices) for a number of years” ​and that calls to stop making health claims on its infant formula are unique to Baby Milk Action.

Rundall responded that 23 health professionals and mother support groups in the UK alone are calling for the removal of health claims, which, she claims, is in line with Codex regulations.

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