Steal the Water, Push the Powder


Nestlé is again on top of the list for corporate violations around breast-milk substitutes, a UK report reveals. Meanwhile in Brazil, residents are opposing a Nestlé/Perrier bottling plant, which is drying up one of the country's historic sources of mineral water. Mike Brady

The Serra da Mantiqueira region of Brazil is famous for its Circuito das Aguas, or “water circuits”, with high mineral content and medicinal properties. Four small towns, São Lourenço, Caxambu, Cambuquira, and Lambari, were built up around these water circuits in the 19th century. But now the mineral content of the water is being reduced by over-pumping by Nestle/Perrier for its Pure Life brand.

“Around 3 years ago, many people in São Lourenço, including myself, began to notice a change in the taste of the mineral waters inside the Water Park”, says Franklin Fredrick, of the Brazillian “Citizens for Water” movement. “One of the most famous water sources there, the Magnesiana, dried up and stopped flowing. Water usually needs hundreds of years inside the earth to be slowly enriched by minerals. If it is pumped in quantities greater than nature can replace it, its mineral content will gradually decrease, bringing the change in taste that we were noticing”. The residents discovered that Nestlé/Perrier was pumping huge amounts of water in the park from a well 150 meters deep. The water was then demineralized and transformed into Pure Life table water. “As the Brazilian constitution does not allow mineral water to be demineralized, we brought our findings to the attention of the public prosecutor of the State Public Ministry in São Lourenço”, says Fredrick, “and this led to a federal investigation of Nestlé/Perrier and charges against the company at the end of 2001”.

Although Nestlé lost the legal action, pumping continues as it gets through the appeal procedures, a legal process which could take ten years. Meanwhile, Citizens for Water organised protests against the company and collected 3000 signatures for a petition. In June, Franklin was one of the speakers at a human rights seminar in Nestlé’s home town of Vevey, Switzerland. Last year the Swiss-owned company made profits of £2.65 billion on its products. Other speakers focused on the corporation's promotion of Genetically Modified Organisms, exploitation of producers, and labour-union busting. In Britain, Nestlé employs more than 6,000 workers and recently announced sales in the quarter to the end of March of £8.7 billion, up from £8.4 billion for the same period in 2003.

Nestlé has been subjected to a 20-year boycott campaign over allegations that it has persistently breached World Health Organisation rules over promoting formula milk in developing countries. The code, drawn up in 1981 and agreed by 118 countries, says breastfeeding should be promoted above all other products and that leaflets and labels relating to breast milk substitutes should do nothing to undermine this. In the developing world, the WHO estimates that some 1.5 million children die each year because they are not adequately breastfed. Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce a mother's risk of breast cancer by up to 4.3 per cent

But Nestlé and other companies have been accused of flouting the rules with advertising, free samples, promotions and sponsorships. Milk substitutes have been promoted as modern in developing countries, despite the fact that the lack of clean water means infection and death is rife because of contaminated milk. The latest monitoring report from the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) profiles the aggressive marketing practices of the big 16 baby food companies and 14 bottle and teat companies. The report, “Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules”, checked some 3,000 complaints from monitors in 69 countries around the world. After legal examination about 2,000 violations were reported, many with photos. Again Nestlé is found responsible for more violations than any other company. In Thailand, it gives out samples of its milk substitutes to mothers in a marketing scheme. It provides free products to health-care facilities from China to Armenia to Peru. In Egypt, packaging and advertising of Nestlé powders repeatedly use phrases such as “identical to breast-milk” or “as in breast-milk”. In Venezuela, it distributes aprons with the company logo to nurses and other workers at pediatric wards. An 8-page brochure found in a hospital in Botswana proclaims that “Growing up is Thirsty Work” and promotes Lactogen “for the hungry full-term infant”.

The launch of the report coincides with parliamentary efforts “calling for the UK government to take action to implement and support the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent, relevant Resolutions in the UK and internationally”. In the week prior to the launch, Nestlé was in the news as the high-profile charity Breakthrough Breast Cancer refused a donation of £1 million from the company. An official reason wasn't given, but it is understood that the staff at the charity called the organisation to reject the money. Nestlé (UK) CEO Alastair Sykes then blasted campaigners in letters to the press, claiming that Nestlé abides by the marketing requirements and is a force for good in the world. Among other things, he boasted of Nestlé’s involvement in the Brazilian government’s Zero Hunger initiative. The programme, which was intended to promote small-scale family agriculture, is now distributing Nestlé processed foods, including milk powder.

Recommended links:

Movimento Cidadania pelas Águas, São Lourenço: (in Portuguese)

Nestlé profile from Corporate Watch:

Baby Milk Action:

International Baby Food Action Network: