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Nestlé accused of milking developing countries

As the World Health Assembly discusses infant health in the developing world, the Swiss multinational Nestlé has been accused of violating the WHA's international code in the marketing of baby milk.

The accusations come from Syed Aamar Raza, a former Nestlé employee in Pakistan. He says he walked out three years ago in disgust at the company's tactics.

"I left after a doctor held me and my employers responsible for the death of a four-month-old bottle-fed baby," Raza recalls. He says his main purpose was to win an ever-growing share of Pakistan's flourishing baby milk market.

Raza say Nestlé bribed doctors to recommend its formula milk, gave free samples, marketed its products directly to mothers and gave its staff sales quotas and incentives. All of these activities contravene the international code for the marketing of breast milk substitutes, which recommends that all mothers breastfeed for at least six months.

Nestlé denies the allegations: "We apply the World Health Organisation code in all developing countries, including Pakistan," the company's spokesman, Marcel Rubin, told Swissinfo.

"We looked at those accusations and found no violations of the code," he said. He added that an audit of the company's marketing activities in Pakistan would be made public next week, and that he was certain it would be vindicated.

"You have to realise that the WHO code is not a law, only a recommendation, and it's up to each country to adapt the code to it's own circumstances. Some countries have not passed a law to implement the code. That's why we decided that, in the absence of a local law, Nestlé will strictly apply the code," Rubin said.

It's a position rejected by the pro-breast-feeding lobby.

"It's dishonest of Nestlé to say they abide by the code. Even their charter - which Aamar Raza says he wasn't being encouraged to follow - differs from the code," insisted Patti Rundall of the International Baby Food Action Network. "They cannot put all the blame on regional offices, these policies are coming from headquarters in Vevey."

"We monitor worldwide and we consistently find that 30 per cent of the violations of the code are down to Nestlé," she said. However, she was quick to point out that Nestlé's competitors were equally at fault. A survey conducted in Pakistan in 1997 found that not a single baby food company was complying with the code.

But Nestlé is the biggest food multinational in the world, and Rundall accuses it of using it's financial clout to put pressure on governments in developing countries: "Wherever governments are trying to bring in legislation, Nestlé pushes them to weaken it and allow them onto key committees monitoring implementation."

It's no coincidence that Aamar Raza's story is being publicised as the World Health Assembly in Geneva is debating the issue of infant health - one of the most fundamental challenges facing the developing world.

"We're looking for the WHO to speak out very clearly in favour of infant health. It's important that the WHO retains its independence and its respect, and protects the world's poorest in all its business," Rundall told Swissinfo.

Despite its reluctance to condemn or condone the behaviour of a particular company, the WHO says inappropriate feeding is responsible for a major proportion of childhood malnutrition and related mortality.

The UN Children's Fund, Unicef, without mentioning Nestlé, has said that violations of the WHO code are common, and especially in Pakistan

by Roy Probert

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