The Nestlé Formula Scandal in Iraq
Don’t forget the milk!
Humanitarian aid comes in a lot of ways, some of which are not as sincere as they claim to be. One of the vilest humanitarian relief fiascos is the Nestlé Formula milk scandal.
When my siblings were smaller, I remember we used to buy for them cans of milk powder. There were two types of these cans, one blue and the other green. Each was meant for a certain age: the first for 1-6 months, and the second for 6 months to 3 years.
These cans of milk, called Dielac, are produced by the Vietnam-based Vinamilk for Nestlé. They were and still are distributed by Nestlé as part of Iraq’s Public Distribution System.
In order to create a market for its breast milk substitute products, Nestlé has compromised the lives and well-being of many children in developing countries, including Iraq and the Kurdistan Region.
As part of its “humanitarian aid” program, Nestlé distributes infant formula milk to maternity wards and mothers of newborn babies. Formula is a family of powder-based, manufactured dairy food products that are designed to substitute for breast milk. However, they are not perfect substitutes.
Nestlé’s campaign to distribute formula milk for free in maternity wards has an underlying sinister goal. When a newborn is fed formula milk, the mother does not have to worry about lactating. And if a mother does not lactate during a short-time postpartum, scientifically she will lose the ability to breastfeed her newborn.
Nestlé’s marketing campaign was to hook newborns on free formula milk until the mother loses the ability to lactate, and consequently allowing them to just sell them their products. Poor country mothers, who can no longer feed their newborns naturally, have no choice but to purchase Nestlé formula.
While this Nestlé campaign can be initially observed as fair business, there are underlying complications. Firstly, “there is no question about breast milk being the best start a baby can have in life,” from Nestlé’s own publications. There are many nutrients and antibodies in breast milk that are unavailable in formula milk. According to UNICEF, in disease-ridden conditions a formula-fed child is between 6-25 times more likely to die from diarrhea and 4 times more likely to die from pneumonia than a breastfed child.
Secondly, the water and sanitation methods needed in preparation of Nestlé formula are not always available in the receiving areas. Most of Nestlé’s target areas are underdeveloped and do not have the necessary equipment to prepare formula the right way. Poor mothers might choose to extend the use of formula cans by using less-than-necessary powder, thus giving their children less nutrition.
Thirdly, Nestlé is notorious for not labeling their formula cans with languages understood by the locals of the countries where they are sold.
This campaign for promoting formula over breastfeeding is responsible for many recorded infant deaths and epidemics of diseases in third world countries.
While there is an international boycott on Nestlé formula since the late 70’s, most people in developing countries like Iraq lack the awareness to refuse free formula. In the Kurdish region, Nestlé is a trusted brand since time-memorial. Even our term for chocolate – Nastelé – is derived from the name of the brand, also known for its chocolate products.
According to a 2007 UNICEF press release quoting Dr. Nidhal, Manager of the Breastfeeding Programme for Iraq’s Ministry of Health, only 25 percent of infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed in Iraq. The distribution of formula discourages traditional breastfeeding.
The same press release contains a call from Roger Wright, UNICEF’s Representative for Iraq, for compliance with the UN International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. “Exclusive breastfeeding is the single most powerful means of protecting the health of Iraqi babies during this time of crisis,” says Wright.
However, no substantial action has been made in Iraq to regulate the distribution and use of formula. Nestlé still produces and distributes powder milk for free – only now it claims to have solved the no-clean-water issue by also selling bottled drinking water.
By: Meer Ako Ali
From Beirut, Lebanon