Current Opinion: Why Boycott Nestlé?

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Current Opinion: Why Boycott Nestlé?

by Sue Tafler & Betsy Walker

‘Science for the People’ Vol. 10, No. 1, January/February 1978, p. 33–34

A nationwide boycott of the Nestle Corporation has been called, because of their aggressive and deceptive promotion and marketing of infant formula in the developing world. Third World mothers are being encouraged to abandon breast feeding in favor of buying such products as Nestle’s Lactogen. Intensive advertising, radio jingles, billboards, and mother-craft personnel (milk nurses hired to increase sales of infant formula at the same time as they provide simple health care) are selling the message: the modern way for the caring mother is to bottle-feed her baby. Sophisticated techniques are being used to stimulate an artificial demand: only a tiny fraction of women have a real medical need for the expensive substitute product. Friendly relationships are being cultivated with doctors and other health professionals, with generous sponsorship of conferences, research grants, and other inducements. The distribution of free infant formula to mothers through hospitals and clinics is all the more insidious and effective because of the implicit medical endorsement. 

Formula sales in the Third World are booming, despite the fact that using infant formula is a luxury for many families. For an average Third World worker, purchasing enough formula for one baby can consume 40-60% or more of a family budget. Commonly, formula is overdiluted to insure that the powder lasts until the family can purchase more. Contamination of the formula is also common. Without refrigeration, prepared formula is a breeding ground for bacteria. Water sources are often unsanitary and sterilization of water or bottle is often impossible. Even the company-sponsored health pamphlets, which suggest to mothers that breast feeding is difficult and requires a special diet, help erode the confidence which is essential for successful breast feeding. Indeed, encouragement to mothers to supplement breast feeding with bottle feeding has the effect of diminishing their supply of milk until artificial feeding becomes necessary. The consequence of this persuasion is severe malnutrition and infection for millions of babies every year. Third World babies are dying of an epidemic which has been called the “bottle syndrome”.1

The boycott is being organized by a loosely structured coalition of church hunger activists, nutrition advocates, food coops, a few women’s groups, and some radicals.2The coalition demands that Nestle stop all promotion of infant formula in Third World countries, including mass advertising to consumers, free supplies to hospitals and new mothers, use of milk nurses for sales, and promotion to health professionals.3

What can the boycott hope to accomplish? Nestle is the second largest food corporation in the world and has sales of $5.5 billion a year (1975). Though Nestle’s largest consumer market outside of Europe is in the United States, it is unlikely we can hurt Nestle financially. We can hope to hurt their reputation. It seems from their response to the announcement of the boycott and from the response of other corporations to similar actions that they may care about their “good name.” Other infant formulas seem to be making token concessions. The use of public media and the writing of letters to Nestle4 may be as (or more) effective than actually changing buying practices. 

Why isn’t the infant formula issue a struggle solely of the Third World countries rather than of those of us who are not directly hurt? We have heard scattered reports of restriction of infant formula distribution by a few small communist countries such as Guinea-Bissau (limited there to prescription only). Even Chile has been reported to have recently instituted a program to promote breast feeding. Local public health efforts can have only limited effect, considering that the annual sales of Nestle exceed the gross national products of many of the countries in which it operates. Unfortunately, the power in many developing countries is not held by the people themselves, and local ruling elites often want to encourage corporate investment. Third World governments and urban elites often have a vested interest in the status quo and their own profits, and even medical personnel often have received Western-oriented training. 

What the boycott will not do is overthrow capitalism. Even if Nestle makes concessions to our demands, this will not end multinational corporation dominance of Third World markets nor end world hunger and malnutrition. Why should radicals like Science for the People be involved in limited-objective actions? We have to have a sense of political reality; radical change can only begin from where people are. Radicals should not exclude themselves from progressive struggles. The boycott can unite well-meaning groups that see themselves as apolitical with more openly political groups. Radicals can raise questions among organizers from a perspective no one else might have. We can have the effect of politicizing others working in the coalition. If Nestle does make some concessions to the demands of the boycott, the sense of victory can give encouragement to the organizers of the boycott to continue on to larger struggles. 

While the boycott is specifically directed against Nestle, it should be a tool for educating people about all multinational corporations. We want to be sure to make it clear that Nestle is not an exception. The immense power of the multinationals and their pervasiveness in international markets are clearly exemplified by the amazing array of subsidiaries owned by Nestle. With declining birth rates in Western countries, it is inevitable that multinational corporations would create a demand and would push their baby products (and many others) into Third World markets. Expanding sales and increasing profits are a capitalist imperative. If left to multinational corporations, Third World families will be drawn into more and more dependence on many imported products and less reliance on local food. The coalition hopes to make the boycott attract media attention on these issues. We can hope that the success of the boycott will increase other multinational corporations’ fear of people’s knowledge and growing power. Finally, the goal of the boycott is important to accomplish – health and lives of Third World infants are at stake. 

We want Science for the People to endorse and actively support the Nestle boycott. We urge you to spread the word and to do organizing in your communities.

>>  Back to Vol. 10, No. 1  <<


  1. See Science for the People. July 1977, article by Leah Margulies.
  2. INFACT (Infant Formula Action Coalition) is being coordinated nationally by the Third World Institute, 1701 University Avenue, Minneapolis, MN 55414. Boston INFACT can be reached cfo Boston Industrial Mission, 56 Boylston Street, Cambridge, MA 02138.
  3. The American drug companies Bristol Myers, Abbott, and American Home Products also export infant formula but Nestle has 1/3-1/2 of the Third World market. Some people (Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility) have begun stock-holder actions against the American companies, but Nestle is a European-owned company so stockholder actions by Americans would be impossible.
  4. The address of the office administering Nestle’s American subsidiaries is Nestle Co. Inc., 100 Bloomingdale Road, White Plains, NY 10605. Nestle products: Nestle Crunch, Quik, Toll House Morsels, Nescafe, Nestea, Decaf, Taster’s Choice, Souptime; all Libby’s canned goods, Stouffer products and restaurants, Crosse and Blackwell, Jarlsburg cheese, Deer Park Mountain spring water, Kavli crispbread, Maggi, Keiller, McVities, Wispride, Swiss Knight. The labels for some of these products often do not mention Nestle ownership.