Friday, 11 February 2011

Nestlé or Nestles?

Well, there's only one way to find out: sing the song!

"The Milky Bar Kid is..." and then I forget the lyrics, but the punchline is definitely, "Nestles' Milky Bar!"

I love the way they've spelt the name.
It's Nestles, not Nestlé in the same way that it's Knorr with a silent K, not "Ker-norr". I've been the editor of a number of food magazines and I distinctly remember going to a press conference concerning the brand Buitoni. Now, as far as I remember, it's pronounced "Bew-Tony" as in "Bew-Tony Real Ravioli – don't talk, EAT!" This was the punchline to a television ad, some years ago, but the American voiceover certainly did not pronounce it "Booey-Tony". And yet, at a press event, senior marketing directors insisted that it was "Booey-Tony" and not "Bew-Tony".

Why even go there on a cycling blog? Well, last night was an historical occasion: myself, Andy, our pal David (the one with the Harley) and our mate Geoff, went out for a curry. The last time we did this, rather shamefully, was in 2006 and it was at that curry that Andy and I decided to start cycling.

Anyway, something else you need to know about David: he's getting a bit 'right on'. I mean, for a start, he's become a vegetarian – and, to be fair, he's looking pretty good on it too – but I could never be a non-meat eater. Alright, I could (and pracically have) given up red meat, but I couldn't be without my roast chicken dinner on a Sunday and I'm occasionally partial to a burger, but very, very rarely. Besides, I tried being vegetarian once and inadvertently scoffed a Scotch egg, forgetting that the egg was wrapped in sausage meat.

In No Visible Lycra terms, David is the 'fifth Beatle' – he's been out with us once and hasn't used his Kona Smoke (a bike I advised him to buy and proof yet again that I should be a Kona salesman) since – and I'm talking years, not weeks.

That aside, though, we reached the end of the meal and the waiter puts down a plate of After Eights (nothing better after an Indian meal) but David declines to eat his (so I jumped in!). Why isn't David eating his After Eight mint? Because he's got something against Nestles (we'll stick to the old pronounciation). Something to do with formula milk and the developing world, mainly Africa.

From a position of ignorance, I argued that if mothers feed their babies formula rather than breast feed, that's not Nestles' fault, but, I'll be honest, the whole thing stuck with me and I woke up this morning eager to find out more about the issue. Naturally, I checked out Google and discovered that Nestles has, for some time, allegedly, been unethically marketing its milk to poor mothers in developing countries. Here's what Wikipedia says:-

"Advocacy groups and charities have accused Nestlé of unethical methods of promoting infant formula over breast-milk to poor mothers in developing countries. For example, IBFAN claim that Nestlé supports the distribution of free powdered formula samples to hospitals and maternity wards; after leaving the hospital, the formula is no longer free, but because the supplementation has interfered with lactation the family must continue to buy the formula. IBFAN also allege that Nestlé uses "humanitarian aid" to create markets, does not label its products in a language appropriate to the country where they are sold, and offers gifts and sponsorship to influence health workers to promote its products."

It's important to point out that Nestles has denied the allegations, but nevertheless, this is more than a storm in a tea cup. In fact, there is now an organisation called the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) that monitors what's going on in respect of the Swiss giant and its baby milk marketing.

In 1999, incidentally, the issue was picked up by The Mark Thomas Comedy Project. Mark Thomas is brilliant, he's written a great book on Coca Cola's activities in the developing world and has campaigned on many different issues (click here for more information). Here again is what Wikipedia have written:-

"In one portion of the show he [Thomas] "received a tin of baby milk from Mozambique. All instructions are in English. 33 languages and dialects are recognised in Mozambique. Portuguese is the official language. However, only about 30% of the population can speak it. English is usually the second language for people in Mozambique."

There is clearly a problem, but once again – as with a lot of stuff like this – while the truth appears to be staring us all in the face about the big corporations and their unethical behaviour, nothing seems to get done. As I mentioned above, Nestles has denied all the allegations against it and, I'd imagine, will continue to do so, leaving only direct action – in the form of people, like David, boycotting Nestles products – which, perhaps one day, will work. But then again it might not.

Having said that, here's more from the issue's Wikipedia entry:-

"Many European universities, colleges and schools have banned the sale of Nestlé products from their shops and vending manchines. In the United Kingdom, 73 student unions, 102 businesses, 30 faith groups, 20 health groups, 33 consumer groups, 18 local authorities, 12 trade unions, education groups, 31 MPs, and many celebrities support the boycott."

So, perhaps things are getting done, although again, Nestles continues to deny the allegations.

It is, however, very difficult to boycott a company like Nestles because it makes so many different things and owns so many different brands. If you want a break, for instance, you have a Kit Kat – well, not David because Kit Kat is a Nestles brand. So is Nescafe and Nestea (the latter we see or hear little about in the UK for some reason). Can David eat three Shredded Wheat? Probably, but he won't because it's a Nestles product. Fancy a hot dog, David? Well, alright, he's vegetarian, so no, he doesn't, but if he wasn't a vegetarian he still wouldn't eat them. Why? Because one of the biggest hotdog brands is Herta and it belongs to Nestles. Smarties, Aero, Lion Bars and Carnation milk are also Nestles products.

And when you're sitting in a restaurant and you order coffee, how do you know that the coffee is not Nestles? Well, to be fair to restaurateurs, they would be mad serving their customers instant coffee as opposed to roast and ground, it's just not the done thing (although Nestles would beg to differ).

The big problem, I believe, rests with a very misleading phrase – 'corporate social responsibility' – which the big multinationals think is their get-out clause for any wrongdoing. They think that if they build a small brick building in the middle of a rainforest and call it a school, then all their bad deeds will in some way be forgiven or covered up. In some cases it probably amounts to bribery, but it's much worse and far less blatant, it's all about getting people on your side. 

You can bet your arse that all large conglomerates do a lot of 'corporate social responsibility' to cover up what they're really up to; ultimately, all they care about is profit, pure and simple, and if that means killing babies or ruining water supplies, you name it, they don't care. But as soon as criticism is levelled at them, they'll play their joker and start waving the 'corporate social responsibility' thing at whoever is protesting, as if to say, "Look at all the good we're doing for the natives: they have a school, a water main and we've bought them a load of laptops."

What gets me about the mothers out in Africa using the formula milk is why they don't breast feed; it is, after all, the most natural thing there is, it must, surely, be a natural reflex in most women and it's best for the baby. Don't tell me there's a Nestles sales rep by their bedsides waggling an index finger and saying, "No, no, breast is not best, Mrs Gatanga, use this!" and then hands over a jar of the dreaded formula. [David informs me that this does happen.]

Still, things are being achieved on the boycott front, which is good news and while, to be honest, I can't be bothered to make a point out of avoiding eating Nestles products – to be honest I rather like Yorkie bars – hats off to David for doing his bit.

Oh, and if you don't want that After Eight mint....hand it over!

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