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An open letter to the attendees of the Nestle Family blogger event

Dear bloggers,

I learned about the Nestle Family blogger event with dismay when a friend e-mailed me about it. I was happy to hear that she had declined their invitation and hoped that many of the other mommy bloggers that I hold in high regard would follow suit. When I later saw the list of people who were attending, I was distressed to see women who I respect and women who are breastfeeding advocates had accepted the invitation. I wanted to believe that they must just not be aware of Nestle's unethical business practices and that once they found out that they would, of course, decline the invitation and boycott the event. That was not the case. Some of you heard the concerns and said that you didn't care. Some of you heard the concerns and said you would go anyways because you felt a dialogue with Nestle would be more productive. You are all skilled communicators. But having followed the Nestle fiasco for a long time, I know how ineffective dialogue has been in the past and I know that their public relations people will tell you a good story and try to take you for a ride.

That said, you are going. I can't change that now. Many of you were tweeting this morning about packing your bags and heading off to the airport. So, in a last ditch effort to help you make a difference, I am writing you a letter outlining the things I would like you to know.

How formula marketing kills

Let me be clear. This is not about what you chose to feed your babies. If you formula fed, whether by choice or by necessity, that is none of my business. That said, the marketing and advertising of formula has been linked to the deaths of millions of babies every year. According to the World Health Organization:

The protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding rank among the most effective interventions to improve child survival. It is estimated that high coverage of optimal breastfeeding practices could avert 13% of the 10.6 million deaths of children under five years occurring globally every year. Exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life is particularly beneficial, and infants who are not breastfed in the first month of life may be as much as 25 times more likely to die than infants who are exclusively breastfed.

In developing countries, the difference between being breastfed and being bottle fed truly is life or death. When women choose to formula feed in developing countries, their babies are at significant risk. They do not have the financial means to keep buying formula, so they water it down and give their babies less than they really need. There is often a lack of clean water, so formula gets mixed with dirty water, which can lead to infections, disease and death. In the developed world, formula feeding isn’t as likely to kill a child, but not breastfeeding does come with a whole host of health risks for both the baby and the mother. It can lead to deaths as well as increased health problems and increased health costs (whether you have a public system or a private insurance system, you do pay for other people’s health care to some extent). Around 1.4 million lives could be saved every year with improved breastfeeding.

Advertising formula and providing free samples to women in developing countries could be likened to advertising free c-sections with a dirty knife and untrained medical staff. Infant formula and c-sections can both be life saving under specific circumstances. But marketing them to the general public as an equal, better, or even close to as good alternative is dangerous, especially in countries where they do not have the means to use it safely.

The International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes

In order to reduce the negative effect of formula marketing and save lives, the World Health Organization developed the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes (World Health Organization), which restricts marketing and related practices of the following products:

  • breast-milk substitutes, including infant formula, other milk products, foods and beverages, including bottle-fed complementary foods

  • feeding bottles

  • teats, like bottle nipples and pacifiers

Governments in more than 60 countries have adopted the Code and made it law. Some countries have gone a step further by making formula available only by prescription or requiring warnings on labels. In the absence of legislation, the Code encourages manufacturers and distributors to comply with its provisions. Some do so voluntarily. Some pretend that they do, but instead blatantly lie (Nestle), do not fully disclose ownership (Lanisoh), or make other choices that compromise their compliance. Others just don’t care at all about compliance and care only about profits.

How Nestle lies, cheats and deceives

What is Nestle's role in this problem? According to INFACT Canada, Nestle controls 40% of the worldwide market for baby food and is active in 80 countries. It is the biggest player in this market. Other companies are unethical too, but the size and reach of Nestle makes its violations of the Code especially problematic and especially risky for moms and babies. Nestle has been characterized by experts in the field as the worst of the baby food companies in terms of its breaches of international standards.

Some illustrations of Nestle's unethical practices include:

  • Nestle has an Infant Formula Marketing Policy that it says complies with the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes, but its scope is much narrower, covering only infant formula (instead of all breast milk substitutes) and covering only developing countries (instead of all countries). Read more here and check out a detailed chart comparing the two here.

  • Nestle invests in public relations initiatives to divert criticism, instead of making changes to bring its practices in line. Read more.

  • Monitoring of the baby food industry by NGOs has found many areas where Nestle's advertising and promotion practices violate the Code. Look here for 13 pages of illustrated and annotated examples of violations.

  • Nestle systematically violates its own policies as brought to light by a senior Nestle employee in Pakistan who resigned and then wrote a scathing, detailed and well-documented whistleblower report on all of the violations that were both allowed, encouraged and ordered by his superiors. He is pursuing legal action against the company. His family has been threatened.

It is important to note that Nestle will try to tell you that all of this is in the past. That has been their approach all along. According to Baby Milk Action's report on Nestle's PR machine, "Nestle's strategy is to admit to malpractice only years in the past, even though it denied it at the time".

Beyond the marketing issue, there are other business practices related to its infant formula that have come into question. For example, apparently Nestle is purchasing 1 million litres of milk per year from Grace Mugabe, the wife of the President Robert Mugabe, despite sanctions due to human rights violations by his government and despite the fact that these farms were seized from farmers by Grace Mugabe. As per its usual practice, Nestle came up with some weak excuses for why this was not a problem.

There is so much to say. I feel like there is no way I can do it justice in a few short paragraphs.

What I would like Nestle to do

I think there is an opportunity for Nestle, as a leader in the food industry, to take a leadership role on this issue. At a minimum it should start abiding by the law in all countries where it operates and not just the letter of the law, but the spirit of the law. But ideally, in order to rectify some of the damage that its past practices have caused, it should go above and beyond what the law requires. Nestle should:

  • Commit to abiding by the  International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in all countries worldwide for all products covered by the Code

  • Ensure that all of its packaging includes information on:

    • The risks of formula

    • Where people can go for breastfeeding help from trained lactation professionals (not Nestle staff)

  • Provide funding for lactation programs in developing countries and in low income neighbourhoods in the United States as part of its corporate social responsibility program

I think a complete about face is required here. Nestle should shift from trying to circumvent the law and the Code to proactively trying to encourage the safest nutrition for infants.

What I would like you to do

At a minimum, while you are there, I hope you'll listen with a critical ear and not take everything at face value. Nestle's public relations machine is well oiled and they will find a way to "address" your concerns without really doing so. I would like you to tell Nestle in no uncertain terms that you do not support its unethical business practices. I would like you to tell them that you will not be using your blog, your twitter presence, or any other platform you are on to help market their products. I would like you to tell Nestle that you are going to boycott its products and ask your friends and family to do so too. Above all, I would like you to ask yourself how you feel about supporting a company that puts profits ahead of the lives and health of babies.

I'll be watching your blogs with interest and a critical eye following this event.

Safe travels,


Important Note

Following the event, I posed a number of follow-up questions to Nestle via e-mail. As they respond to them, I am posting their responses and posting a reply to their responses in separate blog posts. You can access an index of the questions, and the blog posts with the responses here:

Follow-up questions for Nestle

« BlogHer Listens and Acts - Check out my WHO International Code Compliant Ads | Main | Sharing the Babwearing Love »

Reader Comments (279)

[...] week a group of mom and dad bloggers were invited on an all-expenses paid trip to Nestle (see background info here if you are new to this issue). Some of the bloggers took some questions and concerns of their own, of mine, of our community and [...]

I don't see the problem with the bloggers attending the event, as long as they don't become another "Walmart 11" group. THAT would be annoying and unethical and a little stupid, unless you are ok promoting someone with unethical business practices.

However the attending bloggers are not required to tweet about the even nor blog about it, which means that if they are smart they could at least make Nestle aware of the fact that hey, we are onto you, you are not tricking anyone with your lame excuses for circumventing the law, and we are still not buying your products.

I don't see how refusing communication, boycotting the trip would help. I think going and doing research beforehand and ask the right questions would be much more productive. If enough customers ask the right questions, eventually they will have to start changing something so they can give the right answers.

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterElisa

I hesitate to throw something else into the mix, but part of what I'm seeing here is the http://photoninthedarkness.com/?p=140" rel="nofollow">'arrogance of ignorance'. Please don't get sidetracked in that link, it is about another topic but includes a good explanation of the research behind it. Basically it has been shown that the less we know about a topic, the better we think we understand it.

The Nestle boycott has been going for 30 years. There are people who have been engaged in it for literally years, who have read the WHO reports, the NGO reports, who have worked on the ground with ex-slaves. They have debated Nestle, presented reports, pursued Nestle through governments and direct action. And there are people who admit they have never heard of this issue before telling them how they should interact, how to make an impact, what they should expect. (BTW Greg - Telling Dad, not knowing is what ignorance means)

I hope those who are new to the debate do go away and read and process and come to their own conclusions. But please realise that if you feel you are getting a lot of frustration directed at you, it may be because you don't yet know what you don't know, but you are passing your message out anyway.

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDeb - Fusion Parenting

[...] would write and Tweet about Nestle and their products.  Many activists found out about this.  It started polite but degenerated into name calling, racism and extreme nastiness.  There’s a good round-up of [...]

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterI Am Evil « Fusion Paren

@Elisa: The way that it harmed, or had the potential to harm if not balanced by our arguments on the other side on the #nestlefamily hash tag, was that many of the attendees were tweeting throughout the event about how wonderful Nestle is and how wonderful their products are and oh, would you like a coupon for some ice cream. You are right. They were not required to tweet or blog about it, but most of them did.

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] An Open Letter to the Attendees of the Nestle Family Blogger Event [...]

I heard from my friend in India that Nestle has genetically modified ingredients in their formula. Further, this formula wouldn't be allowed in the US. As you can imagine, this is NOT ok. Till this time, I had no idea about Nestle's practices.

I don't know if anyone of you have watched Slumdog millionaire and the scene where they blind the poor child for money. I am so sad that I watched that movie, I can't remove the image in my head now. I can't and I really want to. I am crying as I write this comment.

I don't think it is ok for any brand to give bad food to the babies in a different country for money. Those babies are someone's children.

October 4, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAparna

[...] PhD in Parenting: ‘An Open Letter to the Attendees of the Nestle Family blogger Event’ [...]

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNestle, I Had No Idea! «

Just found a great resources for researching companies yourself: The Corporate Watch DIY Guide to How to research companies: http://www.corporatewatch.org/download.php?id=31

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

I have been reading the comments (all of them) for 2 days now. It's taken that long to get this far down the stream and I've just finished. (Missed the twitter #nestlefamily storm because I took a couple days off to hang out with my kids.)

Thanks Annie for a compelling post. Nicely put together and although it's not new information to me and I've been participating in the boycott for some time, I did review (again) the list of related companies to verify I didn't miss anything.

Also, with Halloween coming up, I'll verified the list for candy companies (KitKat, etc), so I can continue to talk with my money.

@Greg I just have to say, I think you may be taking it personally that people are responding to Annie's post, possibly without reading all of the comments. Having attended, asked questions, been open-minded, etc. there isn't much more YOU could have done. It's what you do next that will begin to make a difference (or not). You pointed out in one of your comments that the fury and firestorm of information might quiet once the event was over. It's up to everyone who has now been informed to decide if/how this affects them and respond with action. To blog, to boycott, to inform others- if you choose.

While I agree that the truth of Nestle's wrong-doing is enough and that "fanaticism" can obscure the message, it's easy to see why women are angry. We're talking about the health of babies and mothers around the world. It's a big and important issue. And for women who have been fighting this battle for years, it's painful that little, if anything, has changed. I'm probably not going to stop being angry.

I also appreciated Michelle@doudoubebe.com's comment: '“Ordinary” parents can and do talk with their wallets – they’re as capable as any activist of seeing egregious corporate behaviour and acting on it. Treat them that way.'

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKaren @ Intentional Birth

Best for Babes did a roundup of some of the posts on the topic here:

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

Thank you, Annie. This is an excellent summary of the issues against Nestle - although as you said, it isn't possible to include everything in one post.

I'd like to add a link to a video documentary we produced while I was working in UNICEF Philippines.


The documentary shows how infant formula manufacturers in the Philippines were undermining the country's code on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes.

This was part of our effort to get the Supreme Court to uphold changes in the Implementing Rules and Regulations of the Philippine Milk Code. Years of influence by infant formula companies had watered them down, so the point where infant formula companies had representation in policy-making and regulating bodies of the government!

You're right. So many of the Mommy bloggers who attended the Nestle event were naive enough to think they could make Nestle listen to them. And that their objectivity would be intact after receiving a fully paid trip.

This whole situation is a wake-up call to all bloggers - about our responsibility as information publishers, the ethics of associating with brands, and how we can keep our integrity intact while making a living with our blogs.

I hope we can educate each other so that we won't be easy targets to big companies with their hyperinflated marketing and advertising budgets (which they don't spend on Mommy bloggers anyway).

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLexi Rodrigo

[...] tweets using #nestlefamily. A groundswell was forming. @phdinparenting posted a very well-thought “open letter” to the mom bloggers attending the Nestle Family Summit, raising awareness of decades-long allegations of improper corporate practices in marketing baby [...]

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered Commenter» #nestlefamily Debacle


Thank you for sending your questions. Our team is reviewing them, and we promise to respond shortly.

Edie Burge
Nestle USA

October 5, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterEdie Burge

[...] the actual blogs and listen to the non-bloggers involved in the boycott.  Does this sound like a tantrum?  Or this?  Or even this?   And the fury was there well before Nestle refused to answer [...]

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterApparently I’m not just

[...] “Advertising formula and providing free samples to women in developing countries could be likened to advertising free c-sections with a dirty knife and untrained medical staff,” wrote the author of a blog called PhD in Parenting. [...]

[...] figure in public life and in the culture, and if that means circumscribing the ability of multinational corporations to swamp the culture in pro-formula messages (there being, after all, no multinational corporation [...]

[...] is one of a series of that features Nestle’s answers to my questions that came out of the Nestle Family event. To access the other questions and answers, go to follow-up questions for Nestle and click on [...]

I put up a list of questions for Nestle Family here:


As they reply to my questions, I will be putting up new posts with their answer and my reaction. The first one is up here:


Still really looking forward to some of the answers on the formula/WHO code issues, which are the ones of most interest to me.

October 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] know what the Nestle boycott is all about? Educate yourself. Check out my post, Annie’s (PhDinParenting’s) post and Best for Babies’ Anthology of Activist Blogs & Twitter Names. Remember, knowledge is [...]

I've known about the Boycott Nestle campaign for some time but honestly never sat down to really consider it. Somehow my own family life got in the way but thankfully I came across your post and WOW; I see how blind I've been.

Quite frankly I am disgusted by Nestle's unethical practices. As I unpacked my groceries yesterday I suddenly became aware of the various Nestle products I've been buying without thinking first. Cheerios, the 'oats with a hole' which I rarely buy, but which my children love, were one of the first things I unpacked. My 6 year old surprised me by stating 'Look mummy, they're wholegrain so they're good for you. I know because of the sign on the box.' When I studied the box I couldn't help but see the box tops for schools logo and realised that they're conning so many parents in under-hand ways. These sugary cereals with their wholegrain logo and buying books for schools means we are all blindly taking an active part in their bad practices.

I will never knowingly buy Nestle again. I'll find something else for my children made by someone who looks after all children and who treats all their employees and consumers ethically.

Thank you so much for your post and I'll be sharing it with my own blog readers.

Feel free to eat those Cheerios. If you study the box more closely you'll see that they're made by General Mills.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg - Telling Dad

@Greg - Telling Dad: It depends on the country. Cheerios are General Mills in some countries and Nestle in others. Just part and parcel of the incestuous food industry! But related to http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/10/07/nestle-answers-preservatives-sodium-and-stouffers/" rel="nofollow">this post, you might also want to consider this post by @curiousdad: http://communities.canada.com/vancouversun/blogs/parenting/archive/2009/06/24/cheerios-salt-baby-snack.aspx" rel="nofollow">Are Cheerios too high in salt to be a healthy baby snack?

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] From Annie at PhDinParenting, an open letter to the attendee of the Nestle Family blogger event. [...]

[...] on micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, as exemplified by the recent controversy surrounding the #nestlefamily event – in which bloggers have agreed to take part in a promotional event organised by the [...]

Wow, had no idea! That is really odd. :) We never gave our babies Cheerios but it's good to know.

I'm glad your questions are being answered, and while I know the answers won't satisfy, at least they are exchanging dialog. Good to see.

October 8, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreg - Telling Dad

Next answer has been posted here: http://www.phdinparenting.com/2009/10/08/nestle-answers-outsourcing-accountability-in-the-chocolate-industry/

Now waiting for Nestle to answer the other 14 of my 17 questions.

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] If you aren’t aware of the reasons why the boycott of Nestle’s marketing of powdered infant formula has been going on for more than 30 years, with a slight gap in between of a few years before resuming again, go here or here. [...]

[...] talked to my 3 boys about why people have been boycotting Nestle for decades. They were a bit overwhelmed to choose to boycott it totally, but got excited about the [...]

October 9, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNestle Sucks « The adven

[...] written a lot of recent posts elucidating why she and many others take issues with nestle. first a letter to bloggers who attended a recent nestle event, then when nestle caught wind of her writing and offered to talk with her she posted the list of [...]

[...] talked to my 3 boys about why people have been boycotting Nestle for decades.  They were a bit overwhelmed to choose to boycott it totally, but got excited about [...]

October 13, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterNestle Sucks – what can

[...] figure in public life and in the culture, and if that means circumscribing the ability of multinational corporations to swamp the culture in pro-formula messages (there being, after all, no multinational corporation [...]

October 14, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterwhatever your feelings…i

General Mills is the only manufacturer of its products. Nestle gets into the mix because they are the distribution channel for many (if not all) of these products outside of the US. That relationship is why I told my husband I would not be supportive of 90% of the ex-pat opportunities available to him when he worked at General Mills.

October 20, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCarol

[...] may not be aware of the deal with Nestlé.  There has been a boycott going on for quite some time, that goes beyond formula (I just learned that myself, I had no idea that it went beyond their horrid formula practices).  [...]

October 25, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterObserved — Nestle Family

[...] get trickier when it comes to things I’ve already purchased. Prior to PhD in Parenting’s Open Letter and the discussion it generated I had been avoiding Nestlé manufactured products but purchasing [...]

[...] When Nestle met with the bloggers at the Nestle Family event, they stated that they are pro-breastfeeding and that they have a 24-hour breastfeeding helpline at 1-800-4Gerber. [...]

[...] By standing up and asking her fellow bloggers one question really.  She asked them how they “feel about supporting a company that puts profits ahead of the lives and health of babies.“ What followed was a fantastic series of questions presented to Nestle, which they, in turn, [...]

[...] for (almost) free marketing: When Nestle invited the bloggers to the Nestle Family event that kicked off the twitterstorm and flurry of critical blog posts, they didn’t require the [...]

[...] from the fact that any company linked, by the World Health Organisation, to the death of millions of babies every year is bound to leave a nasty taste in the mouth, there’s no denying how these noble sons of York [...]

[...] you are a regular reader of my blog or if you were following the Nestle Family controversy, you will know that Nestle claims that it doesn’t market formula in the developing world. [...]

For the benefit of anyone who may be subscribing to comments on this post, but not to my RSS feed, I posted yesterday about a blogger who saw Nestle formula advertising first hand in Ethiopia on a trip she just returned from. She also spoke to women who mentioned getting Nestle formula samples in hospitals. If you thought Nestle was telling the truth about following the WHO code in developing countries, please read this. I hope it will change your mind.


December 9, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

[...] Boycott Spurred by the list attendees of the Nestle Family conference, Annie of PhD in Parenting (whose influence makes her practically a top story in and of herself) spearheaded a movement to [...]

[...] massive campaign is outlined at http://stopnestle.com/ (it doesn’t get much more evil). Oh, and this … because it really is that [...]

[...] I just have to learn to hate those big companies more than Comcast, Verizon, Chase, Walmart, Nestlee and AT&T combined.  Hatred and exercise should do the trick. http://thebigboss.org/ 42.657927 [...]

January 15, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHatred and Excercise « T

[...] If you are unfamiliar with the Nestle Family incident on social media last year, there are myriad blog posts about it, as well as a single piece of mainstream traditional media [...]

[...] in this type of marketing. To be clear, on a sliding scale this is not even close to Enfamil or Nestle or other formula companies. Not even close. But I would argue, and others do argue, that any [...]

[...] You can see the beginning of the Nestle bumbles here. [...]

[...] article references the Nestle Family incident in particular and also mentions that Nestle has a social media positivity score of only 12 out of [...]

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