July 18, 2009

National nutrition conference sponsored by Nestlé

INFACT Canada has learned that a pediatric nutrition conference slated for September has listed Nestlé Nutrition as a major sponsor. The Alberta Health Services First Annual Canadian Perinatal and Pediatric Nutrition Conference being held in Edmonton on September 25-26 is not only being sponsored by Nestlé, but one of its speakers will be a Nestlé employee.

It is a serious conflict of interest for a public health agency such as Alberta Health Services (AHS) to stage a pediatric nutrition conference in partnership with an infant formula manufacturer like Nestlé. Nestlé is notorious for its aggressive marketing of infant formula and obstinate rejection of the WHO International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. The company recently launched a deceptive marketing campaign claiming that probiotics added to its formula will mimic the bifidus factor of human milk. It is no coincidence that one of the conference’s themes will be probiotics in infant nutrition.

As reported in a previous INFACT email, Nestlé’s new formula contains so-called “natural cultures” of bifidus bacteria, which are found in breastmilk. The company is marketing the new brand as equivalent to breastmilk. “There are only two places your baby can get natural cultures,” reads the advertising tagline, “The first is you. The other is from Nestlé Good Start Natural Cultures.” No scientific study is cited as proof that the bacterial cultures in this formula have the same effect on infants as breastmilk.

Nestle intentionally does not warn parents that its powdered infant formulas are not sterile and may be contaminated with the lethal microorganism Enterobacter sakazakii. This bacteria is capable of causing sepsis, meningitis, necrotizing enterocolitis and death in infants. The World Health Organization has produced guidelines for the preparation of powedered formula which state it should be reconsituted at 70°C to kill any bacteria present. This temparature would also destroy Nestlé’s so-called “natural cultures” and so the company’s new formula ads tell parents not to heat the water above 40°C. Exposing babies to E. sakazakii infection is a significant known risk, while Nestlé’s unfounded health claim is of minimal or no benefit.

It is outrageous that the AHS, an organization funded by Canadian taxpayers, should allow itself to be used by Nestlé to promote a product that poses a danger to Canadian infants. INFACT Canada is asking for your support in a campaign to put a stop to this sponsorship. With the help of our members, we have been successful in the past at ridding conferences of Nestlé’s influence. 

Your voice really counts! Please write to Alberta Health Services and ask them to  refuse the Nestle sponsorship and act responsibly to protect infant and young child health.

INFACT Canada has written a sample letter.  Write your own letter or adapt INFACT’s below.

Send emails to:
Mary Anne Yirkuw and Kim Brunet
Conference co-chairs

RE: 1st Annual Canadian Perinatal and Pediatric Nutrition Conference co-sponsored by Nestlé Nutrition.

Dear Ms. Brunet and Ms. Yirkuw,

It is with considerable distress that I note Nestlé Nutrition is co-sponsoring the 1st Annual Canadian Perinatal and Pediatric Nutrition Conference with Alberta Health Services.

I would ask you to reconsider the appropriateness of partnering with Nestlé, the world's largest manufacturer and promoter of infant formula. Infants in Canada and around the world suffer illness, malnutrition and even death because of Nestlé's aggressive marketing which is designed to persuade mothers to formula feed instead of breastfeed. Globally, UN agencies note that every year at least 1.5 million infant deaths are linked to artificial feeding practices. As the world's most aggressive formula marketer, Nestlé bears much responsibility for this outrageous death toll.

The World Health Organization International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and relevant resolutions of the World Health Assembly have been drafted to curb the marketing excesses of Nestlé and other formula companies and safeguard infant and young child health. The International Code has been fully endorsed by all UN Member States, including Canada. These provisions unequivocally state that health care systems and professionals should not be complicit in the marketing and promotion of artificial feeding products. Conflicts of interest, such as sponsorships by the infant formula industry, are explicitly prohibited.

By conferring on Nestlé the prestige of associating with your conference, you are aiding them in the misrepresentation of their products and the deception of parents. The reality is not "gentle proteins", cute pink hearts or "probiotics just like those in breastmilk” but dirty contaminated bottles, diarrhea, babies screaming with pain from otitis media, babies separated from their mothers in pediatric wards with acute respiratory disease, damaged guts that morph into chronic lifelong conditions such as Crohn's disease, more women dying of breast cancer, the cost and pain of living a life with diabetes and lives cut short because of cardiac disease and so on. Ironically, formula feeding is at the root of the very topics under discussion at your conference.

In the Philippines where at least 17,000 babies die every year related to artificial feeding, Nestlé's advertising violates national regulations. In 2007, Nestlé called for the heads of UNICEF and WHO Philippines to be recalled for speaking out in favour of breastfeeding at a time when stronger formula marketing regulations were being considered by the Supreme Court.

According to South Africa’s Department of Health, Nestlé violates that country’s labelling laws with unsubstantiated nutrition claims: “optimal physical and mental development”, “activate your baby’s immune defences” and “strengthen your baby’s natural defences”.

In South East Asia, Nestlé uses a logo of a mother and baby bear in a nursing position on coffee whitener products, creating the impression that these products can be used as breastmilk substitutes. A recent study published in the British Medical Journal highlights the deaths in Laos related to the use of this mislabelled product in infant feeding. Although for many years Nestlé had been urged to remove the image from its products and prevent needless infant deaths, it has stubbornly resisted.

In Canada, Nestlé claims that "there are only two places where your baby can get natural cultures"—"the first is you" and the other is Nestlé formula—and says its formula is the only one with natural cultures to mimic breastmilk's bifidus factor. Highlighting an ingredient in infant formula as a key component of breast milk is misleading and is contrary to section 5(1) of the Food and Drugs Act.

What Nestlé does not tell parents is that its powdered formula may be contaminated with the lethal microorganism Enterobacter sakazakii, which can result in sepsis, necrotizing enterocolitis, meningitis and even death. The WHO recommends that powdered formula be reconstituted at 70 degrees centigrade to kill E. sakazakii, but the Nestlé label tells parents to reconstitute their probiotic formula at 40 degrees in order to protect its “natrual cultures” claim, putting Canadian infants at risk for E. sakazakii infection.

These are not the only misleading claims Nestlé makes to market its formula in Canada. Nestlé formula proteins are advertised as "easier to digest". Easier than what? Nestlé claims its formula fats are "also naturally found in breast milk - to help support your baby's normal brain, eye and nerve development right from the start.” All unsubstantiated, all designed to deceive parents into thinking the product is like breastmilk and all prohibited by Canada's Food and Drugs Act.

The first Canadian Perinatal and Pediatric Nutrition Conference is an important landmark in the quest to improve early and young child nutrition and health and should not be tarnished by being linked to Nestlé. The AHS mission statement says that the orgnanization strives to institute a “patient-focused” healthcare system. Allowing this company to participate in your conference serves the needs of the infant formula industry, not the needs of your patients. I respectfully urge you to rid this conference of its Nestlé sponsorship.

I look forward to your response.

Elisabeth Sterken, BSc, MSc. Dt
Director INFACT Canada/IBFAN North America
63 Burtch's Lane
Rockport, ON
K0E 1V0