The Nestlé shareholder meeting takes place on 6 April 2017, where a new Board of Directors will be elected.
This sees the end of the era of Peter Brabeck-Letmathé, who became Chief Executive Officer in 1997 and continued in the role when made Chairman in 2008 (despite a revolt by a large minority of shareholders who objected to this breach with best practice). Prior to becoming CEO, Mr Brabeck was Vice President for Marketing, Consumer and Corporate Communications, and Public Affairs, a post he took in 1992.
So for 25 years, Mr Brabeck has been at the centre of either setting Nestlé’s baby food marketing policies and practices or attempting to justify these.
Mr Brabeck became CEO the year after I joined Baby Milk Action on an initial 6-month contract (I’m still here, albeit on a part-time/voluntary basis in recent years). Here, I recall some of my memories of his time at the top of Nestlé, particularly when I had the opportunity to put questions to him at shareholder meetings or helped Baby Milk Action put his unethical business practices into the spotlight and force changes.
2016: I put a question to Mr Brabeck at his last shareholder meeting in charge (some years I went, other years my colleague Patti Rundall and colleagues from other IBFAN groups, particularly IBFAN-GIFA). His final chance to agree before shareholders to accept Baby Milk Action’s four-point plan for saving infant lives and ultimately ending the boycott. He refuses to do so and again ignores a call to drop the “protect” claim used to promote Nestlé formula and other breaches of the international marketing standards (the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions of the World Health Assembly). It is breastfeeding that really protects – according to the Lancet Breastfeeding Series published in January 2016, and additional 823,000 child deaths could be prevented every year if breastfeeding rates increased.
2015: Nestlé is voted the “least ethical company of the last 25 years” by readers of Ethical Consumer Magazine. I hold up a page from our Update newsletter at the shareholder meeting to show how Nestlé promotes its formula in Bangladesh with the claim it is the “Gentle Start”, despite knowing the impact on health when babies are not breastfed in conditions of poverty. Nestlé has finally dropped the “Natural Start” claim we have campaigned on previously.
2014: IBFAN’s Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules monitoring report exposes systematic violations of the Code and Resolutions by Nestlé. I raised this at the 2014 shareholder meeting. Mr Brabeck asked Nestlé Nutrition Chief Executive, Mr Luis Cantarell, to respond, who admitted that 90% of the violations of the Code documented by IBFAN comply with Nestlé’s own policies.
2011: Nestlé is added to the FTSE4Good ethical investment index. FTSE has to repeatedly tell Nestlé to stop suggesting this is proof that Nestlé complies with the Code – the criteria do not require a company to do so to be added. Mr Brabeck ignores this request, telling the Guardian in 2014: “[FTSE4Good] make their audits in different parts of the world and we have to prove that we are complying with the WHO code and up to now we can prove that in everything we are.”
2010: FTSE weakens its FTSE4Good criteria for Breastmilk Substitutes as Nestlé and other companies have failed to meet them. The criteria assess companies against their own policies, not the Code. Nestlé weakens its own policies before starting the admission process, showing how FTSE4Good has made things worse, not better.
2005: Nestlé exploitation of water is also an issue Baby Milk Action has sometimes raised at shareholder meetings and help to publicise. The film “We feed the world” includes an interview with Mr Brabeck saying that he thinks NGOs who suggest people have a human right for water have an “extreme” view (and other scary things). The clip haunts him to the present day as communities battle around the world to stop Nestlé bottling municipal supplies for token payments.
2003: After 9 years of campaigning by Baby Milk Action, IBFAN partners and other health advocates and policy makers, Nestlé finally agrees to abide by the 1994 World Health Assembly Resolution and stop promoting complementary foods for use from too early an age. Mr Brabeck announces “Nestlé takes initiative on 6-month labelling”.
2000: Mark Thomas features Nestlé in two episodes of his investigative comedy programme on Channel 4 in the UK. In the first episode Mark focuses on Nestlé’s failure to translate labels into the correct language for where they are sold. Before joining Baby Milk Action, I worked in Malawi through Voluntary Service Overseas, and Nestlé’s refusal to translate labels there into Chichewa there due to “cost restraints” is one of the cases Mark features in the programme.
In the second episode (that looks at other companies as well) Mark questions the elusive Mr Brabeck when he is addressing a group of students at Oxford University. The bad publicity led Mr Brabeck to agree to translate warnings and instructions into the language of the country where they are sold, including Malawi.
1999: This was the year Mr Nestlé gets angry (to quote a report in The Independent newspaper). Mr Brabeck was still settling in as CEO and his heavy handed approach to the boycott campaign backfired badly.
Baby Milk Action had challenged claims in a Nestlé anti-boycott advertisement in 1997 before the Advertising Standards Authority and after a two-year investigation the ASA published its response, upholding all of our complaints. Nestlé had claimed that it markets infant formula “ethically and responsibly”, it said it did not distribute free supplies of infant formula and it implied it was committed to following the WHO Code. The ASA found these claims to be untrue and warned Nestlé not to repeat them. Unfortunately the ruling only applied to advertising and Nestlé continued to make the same claims elsewhere and in shareholder meetings.
To try to counter the bad publicity, Mr Brabeck came to the UK ostensibly to present the company’s first quarter accounts. After doing so, he launched into an attack on the UK public for supporting the Nestlé boycott and critics, including Save the Children and UNICEF. Marketing Week advised Nestlé to take on board critics concerns and make the necessary changes.
In another attempt to divert attention from the ruling, Mr Brabeck embarked on what proved to be a disastrous public relations strategy. He published a 180-page hardbound book called, “Nestlé implementation of the WHO Code – official responses from governments”, which he sent around the world to key officials in international organisations and governments with a cover letter claiming Nestlé was committed to the Code and that he personally investigated any hint of a violation. The book contained letters from government officials, which Mr Brabeck said were official verification that Nestlé complies with the WHO Code. However, some of the authors started to publicly complain that their letters had been misrepresented. Our full analysis called Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover, is available on our archive site.
Mr Brabeck had announced a new monthly Code Action report when he sent the book around and when recipients received it they found apologies to authors whose letters had been misrepresented. One issue included substantial right-to-reply from Baby Milk Action when an article made false claims about our monitoring. The PR initiative became a PR disaster and copies of the Code Action report became more and more infrequent and then stopped (it ran to only 7 issues from October 1999 to June 2003).
1997: Mr Brabeck appointed Chief Executive Officer of Nestlé .