Not on our turf, says NHS, as boycott has Nestlé-sponsored event cancelled

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

NHS takes offence at public health conference sponsorship from confectionery and infant nutrition giant Nestlé.
NHS takes offence at public health conference sponsorship from confectionery and infant nutrition giant Nestlé.

Related tags Breastfeeding

A Scottish public health conference has been cancelled after senior NHS figures urged attendees to boycott the event in protest against its commercial sponsor, Nestlé.

The conference, '​Building a Healthier, Fairer Scotland', was scheduled to take place in Edinburgh last week. The talks were set to bring researchers, policy makers, National Health Service (NHS) directors and NGOs together to discuss public health issues such as obesity, child nutrition, tobacco regulation and hepatitis C.

Campaigner group Baby Milk Action (BMA) dubbed the cancellation a success in light of its efforts to thwart the progress of a company it says employs aggressive marketing techniques to promote its infant formula products.

Meanwhile Nestlé says it is disappointed with the result, and denies it would have used the event as an opportunity to plug its products.

Prior to the final decision to abandon the conference, the Scottish Public Health Network – which brings together senior member of the UK's NHS – sent a letter to the event’s organiser warning: “In view of your decision, some would suggest error, in accepting sponsorship from a trans-national confectionery and breast milk substitute manufacturer, we will be recommending to colleagues that they should not attend or participate in your conference.”

The event’s organisers said the sponsorship should have come as no surprise.

Conference clash

Commenting on the development, Patti Rundall, policy director of BMA said: “...the sponsorship would have done more harm than good. Nestlé would certainly have used it as part of its Corporate Social Responsibility campaign as evidence that it cares about public health and can be trusted to regulate itself." 

Thankfully health workers in Scotland are respecting the World Health Assembly Resolutions on avoiding conflicts of interest. These resolutions are important if health workers and parents are to get sound objective information.”

Rundall said that such events would not necessarily be governed by the same restrictions many health facilities have in place for meetings with company representatives. 

Meanwhile Nestlé backed its participation at such events: Our intention was to promote the importance of breastfeeding and good nutrition throughout pregnancy and in early life, and ways of supporting parents with their feeding choices. We were not there to talk about any of our products and were open and transparent about our involvement throughout.”

It added that it had been very disappointed” ​to learn that the conference had been cancelled. “Particularly on behalf of the organisers who put a huge amount of work into arranging the event, and for the delegates who had registered to attend,”​ it said.

P3 media, the conference’s organiser, defended the event and its commercial backing.

“P3 media believe that we were transparent at all times with regards to this conference having commercial exhibitors – each of which were displayed on the conference website which the delegates visited to make their registration,”​ it said.   

A long story 

Nestlé's advertisement of infant and maternal nutrition products has been the subject of criticism since the 70s, with some so called 'breast is best' groups calling for a blanket boycott of the firm. In 2012 Nestlé was charged with violating infant formula marketing rules after it was challenged in Indian courts​.

Visitors to the 'Nestlé Baby' website are greeted with mandatory messaging about the superiority of breast milk over substitutes. "The World Health Organisation recommends exclusive breast feeding for the first 6 months and continued breast feeding thereafter for as long as possible. As babies grow at different rates, a health professional should advise you, on the appropriate time to introduce weaning foods to your baby. When introducing weaning foods, remember that they need to be suitable and safe to minimise risk to your baby’s health.

The pages ahead and other subsequent communications we may have with you provide you with information on infant feeding and Nestlé products. If you continue, you will be accepting that Nestlé is supplying this information at your individual request. This is for information and educational purposes only and does not constitute advertising."

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