Members of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) stood up in front of 2,446 shareholders at Nestlé’s annual meeting on 16 April to call on Nestlé Chairman Peter Brabeck-Letmathé to change policies that idealise infant formula. Children fed on formula are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies and, in conditions of poverty, more likely to die.

Mr Brabeck refused to stop promoting formula with the claim it is the ‘gentle start’ for babies, despite further documentary evidence of deaths of babies fed on formula in a 2014 report from the Bangladesh Paediatric Association. Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action/IBFAN-UK held up a picture of a dying baby in one of the case studies for shareholders to see (see online version).

Mr Brabeck and the Head of Nestlé Nutrition (Mr Heiko Schipper) told shareholders they enforce Nestlé’s own marketing policies, but as Nestlé admitted last year, these allow 90% of the violations of the UN minimum standards the company should be following. Mr Schipper told investors in 2013 that the ‘gentle start’ claim used in Bangladesh is a ‘growth engine’.

Mike Brady said afterwards,

‘Putting these concerns directly to Mr Brabeck shows how the unethical practices come right from the top of Nestlé. He can look at the picture of a months-old child who died from unsafe bottle feeding and still justify in his own mind promoting formula with the claims it ‘protects’ babies and is the ‘gentle start’. At least we managed to embarrass him sufficiently recently to drop the claim Nestlé formula is the ‘natural start’, after Nestlé repeatedly defended that claim too. It takes laws or campaigns to force changes from Nestlé as they invest in trying to divert criticism. Mr Brabeck’s focus is on profits and hitting the organic growth target of 5-6% he has promised his shareholders, whatever the human cost. While the shareholders may cheer him, his attempt to rebrand the company as a nutrition, health and wellness company has failed. As I told Mr Brabeck directly, many people see Nestlé as a malnutrition, death and water stealing company and that will be his legacy unless he makes changes before he retires. That doesn’t look likely.’

Nestlé was voted the ‘least ethical company of the past 25 years’ by readers of Ethical Consumer Magazine in 2014. It is the target of a boycott over its baby milk marketing. Its water bottling operations are once again a focus of protests as it pumps water in California during a drought, reportedly without a current licence to do so.

Camille Selleger of the Swiss group IBFAN-GIFA invited shareholders to watch the forthcoming feature film, Tigers, based on the true story of former Nestlé salesman in Pakistan, Syed Aamir Raza. Nestlé Chief Executive Officer, Mr Paul Bulcke, told shareholders the film concerned matters from decades ago and was based on the allegations of just one man, although the real sick babies in the film were filmed in 2013 and the allegations are substantiated by documentary evidence, including surveys in 33 cities. A 2012 survey by Save the Children in Pakistan found health workers continued to report being targeted by company sales representatives, particularly Nestlé.

At the shareholder meeting last year, Mike Brady called on Nestlé to stop the violations documented in the IBFAN monitoring report Breaking the Rules 2014, and the board promised to post a response on the company website, which Mr Brady told shareholder has still not materialised. However, Nestlé said last year that 90% of the violations are allowed by Nestlé’s own policies, which is why IBFAN is calling for these to be changed. Mr Brabeck and Mr Heiko Schipper (Head of Nestlé Nutrition), repeatedly referred to the company’s policies in their responses, rather than the minimum standards they should follow.

See online version for images and the transcripts of the interventions and responses: