EDEV_505 Week 8_3

You offer a seductive set of questions about what to do with Nestlé. We can be so easily drawn in by superficial answers to questions that are tantalisingly complex. Frankly, I was surprised that the Nestlé issue is still ongoing as I remembered it from my school days. I’d like to offer another perspective to add to L’s and W’s.

Too often in the public arena, scientific consensus gets sidelined in favour of public opinion. And, as we are too well aware, public opinion is easily manipulated. In the Nestlé case, at least two core values can be shown to have influenced public opinion negatively in relation to the existing evidence: ‘nature is best’ and the trope of ‘evil big pharma’. Both positions are problematic, to say the least. I’ll explain these in a little detail.

There is a common perception that things natural are better than man-made artificial products, especially in food. For example, the anti-GMO lobby is powerful in Europe, and many people are sceptical of chemicals in food. Organic food is lauded even though industrial pesticides are used extensively in organic farming, and the scientific consensus falls firmly infavour of GMO foods. Peoples’ gut reaction is strongly against what they perceive as artificial additions to things they put inside their bodies. Furthermore, there is also the perception that the major chemical companies, or big pharma, are all-out to deceive the rest of humanity into buying their sci-fi products by tricking us into accepting the products’ safety.

The majority of the population are not trained in statistics, have no deep knowledge of biochemistry and simultaneously hold on to attitudes about health and diet that are pre-industrial. Scaring the general population about food risks is an easy game.

Having reviewed the evidence against Nestlé (disclaimer: I’m not a specialist), it seems that Nestlé are continuing to be punished for a clearly egregious display of corporate greed in the 1970s. The evidence that still ‘damns’ them is weak. Even the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), an organisation that monitors the use of baby milk formula worldwide and who have attacked Nestlé vigorously, are inconsistent in their arguments against Nestlé. For example, they say;

“Article 9.2 of the International Code requires labels to be in the appropriate language and to include specified text warning that breastfeeding is best for babies and that the products should only be used on the advice of a health professional” (IBFAN, 2007, italics mine).

Yet in the same page, they show that Nestlé do indeed package their products with;

“The feeding guide on the pack states that mothers should continue to use the formula ‘in the case of lack of breastmilk'” (IBFAN, 2007, italics in the original).

These two statements are supplementary, not contradictory. Even the italics point out Nestlé’s attempt to rectify and clarify their position, and I cannot see how IBFAN can use them to attack Nestlé. In fact, the text shows Nestlé positively. The only conclusion I can come to in this example is that people do not read the information and only hear the negative message IBFAN spread.

The WHO (2007) could be an arbitrator in this issue, but they do not have access to enough information about IBFAN’s claims. The main claim, in any case, seems to be the belief that breast milk is better than formula (‘nature is better’) and that one greedy company is breaking all the rules (‘evil big pharma’). Even if this were true, is breast milk better than formula? Again, the jury is out. I checked Medline, the Mayo Clinic and WebMD. All three relied on the American Academy of Paediatrics’ (2012) report on the health advantages of breastfeeding over formula. However, the comments section of the AAP report reveal a very different tale; many of the individual health ‘benefits’ claimed by the AAP were disputed by the commenters who provided journal evidence to support their scepticism. I followed a couple of those links to verify their accuracy. Even if the counter-reports are problematic, the state of the situation is that there is no definitive scientific consensus about the ‘benefits’ of breastfeeding. Indeed, some of the AAP figures are implausible: a 40% lower risk of type-II diabetes and a 20% lower risk of leukemia (AAP, 2012, p. e829). Given the already low risk of these illnesses (32.1 diagnoses of all cancers per 100,000 children ages 0 to 14 in the US [National Cancer Institute, 2012]), I would like to know the epistemology of such claims.

I do not wish to assert that Nestlé is blameless. Their fault in the 1973 scandal is beyond question. However, the issue facing you in the early years of the 2010s was more of a public perception problem than anything else. Then, the questions change.

  1. Should we educate the public about the present situation? About the nature of evidence?
  2. How do we investigate our own perceptions about the ‘nature is better’ and ‘evil big pharma’ tropes that currently grip much of the population?
  3. As W pointed out, we live in a consumer society so how much interference from corporations should we accept when they provide sponsorship?

Apologies for this post getting longer than I had hoped. Even so, the surface only has been scratched. Thanks for an excellent question.


American Association of Paediatrics. (2012). Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk. Policy Statement. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-e841. Retrieved May 30 2016 fromhttp://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/02/22/peds.2011-3552

IBFAN. (2007). How breastfeeding is undermined. Retrieved May 30 2016 fromhttp://web.archive.org/web/20070415171525/http://www.ibfan.org/english/issue/bfUndermined01.html

National Cancer Institute. (2012). Cancer in children and adolescents. Retrieved May 30 2106 fromhttp://www.cancer.gov/types/childhood-cancers/child-adolescent-cancers-fact-sheet

About theCaledonian

Scot living in north Japan teaching at a national university.
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