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Honour for Nestlé Chairman Insult to All Who Value Respect for Human Rights (Guest Post)

Readers of this blog will know about my efforts to educate people about Nestlé's unethical business practices. In addition to posts I've written, I sometimes feature guest posts on issues surrounding Nestlé. Today I am pleased to host a  a guest post by Elisabeth Sterken, director, INFACT Canada and Kirsten Goa, member, Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE). It was previously published on Human Milk News.

The decision of the University of Alberta to award an honourary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the Swiss food conglomerate Nestlé , is a curious one.

The university has high standards when considering potential honourees for this award:
“Honourary degrees are intended to honour individuals whose extraordinary intellectual or artistic achievements or significant service to society set a standard of excellence and merit the University's highest honour.”

U of A president Indira Samarasekera says,
“We only give honourary doctorates to individuals, not institutions.”

But Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe’s contribution to water policy is solely in his role as chair at Nestlé. Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe has been with Nestlé for almost fifty years where he worked in sales and marketing and rose through the ranks, cutting his teeth in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s. He is a company man.

The achievement the U of A cites as reason for granting him an honorary degree is an industry award granted to Nestlé, not to Mr. Brabeck-Lemathe. The Stockholm Industry Water Award was granted at an event sponsored by Nestlé for the company’s efforts at decreasing water use of 300,000 farmers.

This certainly an achievement, but compared to Nestlé’s complete corporate record it is a drop in the bucket.

For decades Nestlé has been and continues to be under global consumer boycotts.

Notorious since the 1980s for its marketing of infant formula, and subsequent infant deaths and illnesses because their consumers were not breastfed, Nestlé has shown nothing but disdain for the protective measures set by the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions.

Its marketing practices continue throughout the globe, despite overwhelming scientific documentation that these products increase infant deaths, encourage infectious diseases, raise malnutrition rates, and in developed countries such as Canada, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and higher cancer rates.

Yet, under Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe’s watch, Nestlé’s bottom line trumps maternal and child health with predatory advertising seeking to retain its market supremacy.

Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe has been quoted as saying he is, “of the opinion that the biggest social responsibility of any CEO is to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.”

And one of the mainstays of the Nestlé corporate ship is infant formula.

In Canada, the Nestlé infant formula promotions are clear infringements of the World’s Health Organization’s code and resolutions for the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. New mothers receive free samples of products, often unsolicited. Advertisements and labels claim to “protect” against illness and comparisons are made to give the appearance that their products are similar to breastmilk.

All designed to seduce mothers into trusting the Nestlé brand.

Such advertising undermines Canada’s infant and young child feeding policies putting stress and added costs on our health care systems and parents in order to offset the impact of the Nestlé marketing.

But that’s not all.

Nestlé is the world's largest producer of bottled water. It has been widely criticized by communities because of depletion of groundwater for its bottling plants and for making money off a product that should be free of charge.

In the 2005 film We Feed the World, Mr. Barbeck-Lemathe’s position on water is crystal clear:
“Water is of course the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs who bang about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”
“The other view is that water is a foodstuff like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give a foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware that it has its price.”

Is this a creative insight that merits an honorary doctorate? A corporate agenda designed to commodify what was affirmed by the United Nations (not some radical NGO) as a human right.

A resolution passed in July 2010 by the UN General Assembly affirms the public, “right to water and sanitation” and expresses alarm at the 1.5 million children under five years old who die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases.

This honour is an insult to those mothers whose infants became sick or died because they believed the Nestlé falsehoods that their babies would have a “healthy start” and would be “protected” from illness.

It is an insult to all who value respect for human rights, who are concerned about protecting our environment, and who care about the wellbeing of infants and children everywhere.

Clearly the U of A president and senate have not done due diligence in this choice. Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe is a career salesman who heads a company that has been challenged at shareholder meetings and in writing on these human rights issues, environmental damage and ethical concerns and has dismissed all of them.

It will seriously damage the reputation of the University of Alberta and the already diminished standing of the province as a whole.

Elisabeth Sterken, is the director of INFACT Canada, a national non-governmental organization that works to protect infant and young child health as well as maternal well-being through the promotion and support of breastfeeding and optimal infant feeding practices. Kirsten Goa is a member of the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE), an organization of mothers, health advocates and community leaders working to support breastfeeding in Edmonton.

Additional news coverage of this issue
Nestlé given honorary degree amid protests - CBC Radio
Nestlé receives controversial honour from the U of A - CTV Edmonton
Protests begin against honorary degree for Nestlé exec - Edmonton Journal
Debate between U of A sociology professor Amy Kaler and President Indira Samarasekera on CBC Radio.
Guest op-ed in the Edmonton Journal by Amy Kaler
« You are not a failure... | Main | I Pledge to Help Prevent Breast Cancer... »

Reader Comments (14)

Not to mention Nestlé is one of the main users of palm oil.

Well written article, thanks for hosting and sharing.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFarren Square

Thank you Elizabeth for this fine piece and your support of my petition as well.
This honor is not only an insult but a grave disservice, enabling the false persona of Nestle to further pervade our countries, one by one. Awarding this degree just validates the fact that money dictates success - no matter how that money is made or at who's expense. It is simply horrifying to me that U of A would place such a person on a pedestal instead of use him as an example of what not to become.
No one seems to perform due diligence when it comes to Nestle, as we have seen recently in Newark, NJ with their new partnership to reduce childhood obesity. They slide right in under the radar, tossing money right and left. Thumbing their noses at anyone that tries to challenge them - meaning those of us "little people" who really care about our children, environment, health and future.
The "people in charge",( you know, the ones we are supposed to trust to protect our human rights,) whether it be government, professional, medical, or consumer entities- even when notified of the grave discretions you write about, choose to ignore, look the other way or even better, choose to do business with Nestle! How dare they?! Shame on them and shame on U of A!

I was at this protest and continue to be appalled that the UofA would honour Nestle. I will be returning my alumni donation form this year with a resounding no and the reason why written it, although I'm sure the money Nestle has given will overshadow my "token gesture".

To the writer of the article -- I am disappointed with "It will seriously damage the reputation of the University of Alberta and the already diminished standing of the province as a whole." Alberta, like all provinces, is not perfect and I agree that many of the government's policies are destructive but certainly we are not the only province guilty of associating with Nestle.

March 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRae

Bravo! I cannot understand why Nestle continues to clearly infringe on the WHO guidelines. Why is this corporation blind to the public's dislike of their tactics? I have support the boycott for years, and it is difficult to avoid Nestle products, they are ubiquitous.

Disgusting, but unfortunately not surprising. Particularly where money is so hard to come by, it's difficult to turn Nestle's sponsorship down, I know that from experience. But if we (governments, academic institutions, non-profit service organizations) don't stop allowing Nestle to whitewash its image with these corporate "good works," they will continue benefiting from their ability to buy off those who should be criticizing them most.

March 10, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

You had me up until you blamed the province as a whole. The university is a private organization. Generalizations and stereotypes help noones argument.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie

I have to echo what commenters above have said: "You had me up until you blamed the province as a whole"...

I live in Alberta and that statement just rubbed me the wrong way. I agreed with everything, but wish you'd remove that bit.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterbeth@redandhoney

My reading of that sentence was not that the author blames the province as a whole, but that this incident would damage the reputation of the province. Rightly or wrongly, Alberta does have a reputation in other parts of the country (as I know Ontario and Quebec have in Alberta!) and incidents like this may cause further damage to the reputation.

March 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterphdinparenting

This is ridiculous. I can't believe that a University would do that. Nestle is one of the worst for being an evil, faceless corporation taking advantage not only of things like water supplies but also for the harm that it doles out upon impoverished people in the Third World. Have you read Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil by Nancy Scheper-Hughes, an anthropologist from the University of California's Berkeley campus? She has a couple of chapters in there about Nestle and the way its formula pushing and use in the shantytowns of Brazil contributes to thousands of infant deaths every year.

March 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobbin Abernathy

I live in BRAZIL now. I used to live in USA. Its not difficult to avoid Nestle in Usa because we have many other options there. In Brazil, we dont. But even being hard to avoid Nestle here, I do my best. Even if I have to pay more. The major issue here is that people loves Nestle products, and they dont see how bad this companh is. When I tried to share mu thoughs about Nestle, people say Im kind of crazy, I believe in conspiracy, etc. Its very frustrating... And this kind of honor being give to this guy make them even more "influent" here, where the real information dont arrive properly. Very very sad. Anyway, I will make an effort to find a time to translate this article to Portuguese, to share with people here. Even If I touch just ONE, I think I will be happy with that. Thanks!

March 15, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKaren

[...] University of Alberta’s president, Indira Samarasekera, insists that the degree is not for Nestle, it’s for Brabeck-Letmathe as an intellectual. His intellectual position is that to “bang on about declaring water a public [...]

[...] has a right to water, and who should profit from what he and Nestlé believe is a commodity, not a given human right. “Arguably, no country understands the water crisis better than South Africa. The era of [...]

[...] believe that all environmentalists hate jobs, rural folk and urban hipsters can never agree, or Nestlé really has mended their ways and those against this plant are a bunch of hypocrites then I suspect nothing anyone can do or say [...]

I totally argree with this point you made here
"It is an insult to all who value respect for human rights, who are concerned about protecting our environment, and who care about the wellbeing of infants and children everywhere."

May 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarl

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