Tales of Corporate Greed, Episode I: Nestlé
In 1867, a gentleman by the name of Henri Nestlé, a German immigrant working as a pharmacist in Switzerland, had a neighbor with pneumonia that rendered her unable to breastfeed her child. He calculated levels of cows milk, sugar, and wheat flour and tried the baby on it until, finally, the baby took it and started gaining weight and looking healthier. Most regard this event as the invention of baby formula. That day, the Nestlé company we know began.
One hundred and fifty years later, everyone is very familiar with this multi-billion dollar international conglomerate. They own the most popular brands of virtually every consumable, from Perrier and Pellegrino water to Nestea and Nescafe tea and coffee to Gerber and Carnation baby foods. They own the three most popular dog and cat food brands, Friskies, Alpo, and Purina, as well as all of the most popular candy brands in the country. I could go on all day but, to make a long story short, here is a graphic illustrating all of the Nestlé brands.
Now, my older readers could know about the Nestlé boycott that took place between 1976 and 1983. For those who don’t, Nestlé used very aggressive marketing tactics in Third-World countries. Nestlé makes a massive sum of money through its baby food brands, but through most of the twentieth century one could advertise a product however they wanted. To illustrate the point, here is a picture of the Flintstones selling cigarettes.
Anyway, Nestlé advertised its formula as a way to wean children from breastmilk earlier, thus giving the parents exorbitant free time apparently. The intentions were good and did a lot to presuppose the attitude we as a country hold toward baby formula and breastfeeding today. Nestlé, in its advertising of formula, would make outrageous claims such as weaning sooner meant the child would learn other skills faster and that formula was the only way for your baby to get balanced nutrition. This method, selling half-truths and logical fallacies, likewise presupposed the way the advertising industry grew.
Through the twentieth century, Nestlé made out far better than most companies and managed to diversify its conglomeration quite a bit with the help of the tactics mentioned above. However, once a regulatory agency hit the scene and informed businesses that they could not outright lie in their advertising and that claims about health and science should actually be checked for accuracy, ads and commercials went from bold claims and “facts” to pathos and persuasion. But as Nestlé and quite a few other companies found out, those rules really only apply in our country. Despite the unethical, amoral, and often times downright shocking practices Nestlé employs in other countries, it continues to turn a significant profit here in America.
In 1977, protesters first called for a boycott of Nestlé because of its advertising practices. Since it could no longer make outrageous, myth-based claims here in America, it shifted its focus to developing countries, namely those in the Caribbean. Its claims that formula “protects” babies and gives them a “natural start” sounded very comforting to people living in poverty and who themselves could probably count the number of good meals they have had in their life on one hand. They wanted to give their baby all the nutrients they possibly could; the best start. Unfortunately, due to lack of water sanitation and reusing old parts without sterilizing them, infants in countries like Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Jamaica began dying in record numbers. But did Nestlé stop, or even tone down its marketing in these countries? Not for fifteen years, and even now, that only applies to countries that have explicit trade agreements with America. Joanna Moorhead of the Guardian wrote a very compelling story in 2007 about the very same thing happening in Bangladesh and in other under developed countries.
That doesn’t seem to make a lot of difference, as Nestlé continues to turn record profits back here in America despite making the list as one of the four most boycotted companies on the planet. In April of 2007, Nestlé bought Gerber Baby brand from Novartis for $5.5 billion, much to the chagrin of healthy and natural lifestyle (termed “crunchy”) parents and bloggers. A report entitled “Cheating Babies: Nutritional Quality and Cost of Commercial Baby Food” by Drs. Daryth Stallone and Michael Jacobson details how, in the market for money over morals, most supermarket baby foods, Gerber included, cheat parents and kids. Since it only contains fruit and vegetable puree, the nutrients for baby remain. Not the best quality fruits and vegetables, by far, but real fruits and vegetables and nothing but. When we get into the “Stage 2” foods, we find a longer list of ingredients than the “Stage 1,” but the list still doesn’t clue us into the fact that they favor water, preservatives, and thickening agents over fruits and vegetables. The puree does not make the baby food so thick; they replace the puree with refined starch, generally flour or rice, which means more volume to less nutrition. Speaking of nutrition, TheAlphaParent.com shares a wonderful list of “special ingredients” found in baby foods over the last ten years, and it includes great nutritive adjuncts such as fingernails, glass, staples, rust, worms, dead rat pups, and more.
Good, quality ingredients are the most important part of many of Nestlé’s products. Take, for example, its chocolate. From everyone’s favorite Butterfingers and Kit Kats to old timey classics like Nesquik and Dreyer’s ice cream, at least 40% of the chocolate in it comes from the Ivory Coast, a country in West Africa. Estimates put 90% of the labor from child slaves, lured in with promises of money and education from neighboring countries such as Mali. When this came to light, most chocolate companies claimed that they got their chocolate from middle men or third party suppliers, and they had no knowledge of the practices in other countries. Nestlé, on the other hand, made no attempt to dispute its source. They would have found it difficult to dispute anyway, seeing as Nestlé has an exclusive packing and shipping warehouse in the Ivory Coast. Christie from The Daily Momtra relates a story about Aly Diabate, a 12 year old lured there with the promise of a bicycle and 150$ a year that he could send to his parents in Mali. When he got there, the only rewards for working 18 hour days carrying 50 pound bags of cocoa beans with no shirt became “the rare days when the overseers or older slaves didn’t flog him with a bicycle chain or branches from a cocoa tree.”
Several countries have enacted legislation that prevents buying cocoa from child labor sources. Unfortunately, they left a giant, gaping loophole that says a company can use the same supplier, as long as the company commits to change. Nestlé committed to change its source and the conditions by 2005, but they didn’t. The International Labor Rights Fund brought suit against Nestlé for this, and they got out of it by saying that impending civil war in the Ivory Coast prevented them from sending anyone to monitor conditions. They also said, and I quote, “We’re just buyers of a product.”
About half of American consumers are buyers of another product — pet food. Almost half of Americans own at least one dog, and at least the same number own at least one cat. If you look at the ingredients on some of the most popular pet food brands, you will likely find “meat byproducts” or “meat meal.” Meat byproducts, according to the industry standard, are parts of the animals that humans won’t eat, such as chicken intestines, stomachs, beaks, claws, blood, etc. You may think, “Hey, that’s fine. It’s for an animal, so of course they won’t uphold the same standards as human consumption.” To that I say, let’s look at meat meal. This product, just like meat byproducts, is composed of any different number of things. A couple of them are meat from 4D — dead, dying, decaying, and diseased — as well as zoo animals, roadkill, and euthanized cats and dogs. That’s right, some people may well have fed their pets other peoples’ former pets. A couple certified cases, certified because the drug used to euthanize these animals, sodium pentobarbitol, was actually found in the food, come from Purina and Alpo. Can you remember, from page 1, which company owns both of those brands? I bet you can. In her book Food Pets Die For, Ann Martin explains that
Euthanized cats and dogs often end up in rendering vats along with other questionable material to make meat meal, and meat and bone meal. This can be problematic because sodium pentobarbital can withstand the heat from rendering. For years, some veterinarians and animal advocates have known about the potential danger of sodium pentobarbital residue in commercial pet food, yet the danger has not been alleviated.”
In short, that means that the right people have known about this for years, but no one has done anything about it. I’m okay with feeding my cat weird parts of chickens, but not diseased and decayed animals and certainly not other cats.
The Nestlé corporation’s care for animals doesn’t stop there. If you had to guess, what would you say that all the make up, hair care, perfume, and cologne companies owned by Nestlé have in common? If you guessed that they spend the most on advertising, that is correct. But another correct answer is animal testing. When someone says “animal testing,” the general thought goes to “here’s another one of those PETA crazies,” but the fact of the matter remains that the testing, both the reason and the actual testing, is incredibly inhumane, unethical, and, frankly, barbaric. For shampoos, most cosmetics, and the perfumes, the process goes something like this: the animal, generally a rabbit or similar rodent because they’re cheaper but sometimes chimps and other apes, lies strapped into a harness, the forward part of which has apparatus to forcibly hold the animal’s eyes open. Then, the researchers use syringes to spray proportionately large doses of whatever needs tested directly into the animal’s eyes. Over a period of time through which the animal remains unable to blink or move, the researchers document how irritated the eyes become using a scale. Other times, they force feed or tube feed copious amounts of the product to the animal to document digestive distress and toxic amounts.
Another fact looms: this testing doesn’t need to happen in the first place. We have become quite advanced in the fields of chemistry and toxicology, so much so that this animal testing is intellectually equal to going outside and testing the theory of gravity every day. The information is already there, readily available with well documented research, and it won’t change any time soon.
Instead of testing things that won’t change, it helps to research things that might change or things we don’t know about. Nestlé’s tea brands, namely Lipton, Nestea, Sweet Leaf, and others, thoroughly investigate the health benefits of the tea they sell. But they need a lot of research all at once so they can keep writing about the health benefits of tea all over the bottles. So, for a few quick examples of their “research,” they bred mice to have brain dysfunction, rapid aging, and muscle degeneration, after which they fed / injected them with tea and related extracts, killed and dissected them (but not necessarily in that order), and reported findings. In other tests, the mice were systematically coaxed into diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure, all to the same ends of dissection to have the health benefits reported on. As it turns out, no law says that animal testing is sufficient to prove health claims about food or beverages. Can’t say they didn’t try, though.
With all of this to consider, it’s a wonder that Nestlé or any of its subsidiaries hasn’t spent more time in court over something. This may come as a surprise, but they have, just not over any of the previous items. One of the most trivial products that most of us, as consumers, take for granted: bottled water. They have found themselves in lengthy litigation twice for falsely representing their bottled water. The first time, customers took issue with the fact that, despite the product’s claim that “it is sourced from an underground spring deep in the woods of Maine,” it actually came from a public well in suburbia. The second time, Nestlé’s Ice Mountain Water brand sold filtered tap water in the five gallon business dispenser jugs. A very difficult to find document, not found on Nestlé or Nestlé Waters website, says the dispenser jugs contain “municipal and/or well water that is transformed through state of the art processing techniques.” Yes, filtered tap water. Nestlé settled out of court the first time for $10 million, and the undisclosed second settlement remains a mystery.
Water, according to Nestlé CEO Peter Brabeck, is the most valuable commodity in the world. A foodstuff, just like any other product, and as such the people need to privatize the sources and it should have a real world commodity value, just like any other food. In other words, he doesn’t believe human rights entail water, in spite of the fact that water privatization in South Africa caused a massive cholera outbreak in 2000 and that privatization of water will lead directly to regional shortages. Brabeck is in wonder at the technology humans have developed, and looks forward to the day when we can distance ourselves from nature. He repeatedly attacks organic farming and nature in the documentary “We Feed the World.” As one of the richest men in the world, he believes that people “will have jobs” if he makes as much profit as he possibly can. This man runs of one of the largest consumable conglomerates in the world.
Thanks to Peter Brabeck and his company, Nestlé, for helping me illustrate the perils of the capitalist business model. Some companies have skeletons in the closet and some companies have rocky moral footing, but rarely do we find a company like Nestlé that, through careful technical lawyering and political persuasion, so nonchalantly and legally causes so much needless suffering in literally every facet of their business. Just remember, they keep this from you because they know you won’t buy if you know.