Thursday, March 01, 2012

Honour for Nestlé chairman insult to all who value respect for human rights

This morning Human Milk News is running this guest post by Elisabeth Sterken, director, INFACT Canada and Kirsten Goa, member, Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE).

The decision of the University of Alberta to award an honourary degree to Peter Brabeck-Letmathe, chairman of the Swiss food conglomerate Nestle, is a curious one.

The university has high standards when considering potential honourees for this award:
“Honourary degrees are intended to honour individuals whose extraordinary intellectual or artistic achievements or significant service to society set a standard of excellence and merit the University's highest honour.”
Edmonton Journal
U of A president Indira Samarasekera says,
 “We only give honourary doctorates to individuals, not institutions.” 
But Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe’s contribution to water policy is solely in his role as chair at Nestlé. Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe has been with Nestlé for almost fifty years where he worked in sales and marketing and rose through the ranks, cutting his teeth in Augusto Pinochet’s Chile in the 1970s. He is a company man.

The achievement the U of A cites as reason for granting him an honorary degree is an industry award granted to Nestlé, not to Mr. Brabeck-Lemathe. The Stockholm Industry Water Award was granted at an event sponsored by Nestlé for the company’s efforts at decreasing water use of 300,000 farmers.

This certainly an achievement, but compared to Nestlé’s complete corporate record it is a drop in the bucket.

For decades Nestlé has been and continues to be under global consumer boycotts.

Notorious since the 1980s for its marketing of infant formula, and subsequent infant deaths and illnesses because their consumers were not breastfed, Nestlé has shown nothing but disdain for the protective measures set by the World Health Organization’s Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent resolutions.

Its marketing practices continue throughout the globe, despite overwhelming scientific documentation that these products increase infant deaths, encourage infectious diseases, raise malnutrition rates, and in developed countries such as Canada, lead to obesity, diabetes, heart disease and higher cancer rates.

Yet, under Mr. Peter Brabeck-Letmathe’s watch, Nestlé’s bottom line trumps maternal and child health with predatory advertising seeking to retain its market supremacy.

Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe has been quoted as saying he is, “of the opinion that the biggest social responsibility of any CEO is to maintain and ensure the successful and profitable future of his enterprise.”

And one of the mainstays of the Nestlé corporate ship is infant formula.

In Canada, the Nestlé infant formula promotions are clear infringements of the World’s Health Organization’s code and resolutions for the marketing of breastmilk substitutes. New mothers receive free samples of products, often unsolicited. Advertisements and labels claim to “protect” against illness and comparisons are made to give the appearance that their products are similar to breastmilk.  

All designed to seduce mothers into trusting the Nestlé brand.

Such advertising undermines Canada’s infant and young child feeding policies putting stress and added costs on our health care systems and parents in order to offset the impact of the Nestlé marketing.

But that’s not all.

Nestlé is the world's largest producer of bottled water. It has been widely criticized by communities because of depletion of groundwater for its bottling plants and for making money off a product that should be free of charge.

Erwin Wagonhofer's "We Feed the World", 2005
In the 2005 film We Feed the World, Mr. Barbeck-Lemathe’s position on water is crystal clear:
“Water is of course the most important raw material we have today in the world. It’s a question whether we should privatize the normal water supply for the population. And there are two different opinions on the matter. The one opinion, which I think is extreme, is represented by the NGOs who bang about declaring water a public right. That means that as a human being you should have a right to water. That’s an extreme solution.”
 “The other view is that water is a foodstuff like any other foodstuff it should have a market value. Personally I believe it’s better to give a foodstuff a value so that we’re all aware that it has its price.”
Is this a creative insight that merits an honorary doctorate? A corporate agenda designed to commodify what was affirmed by the United Nations (not some radical NGO) as a human right.

A resolution passed in July 2010 by the UN General Assembly affirms the public, “right to water and sanitation” and expresses alarm at the 1.5 million children under five years old who die each year as a result of water- and sanitation-related diseases.    

This honour is an insult to those mothers whose infants became sick or died because they believed the Nestlé falsehoods that their babies would have a “healthy start” and would be “protected” from illness.

It is an insult to all who value respect for human rights, who are concerned about protecting our environment, and who care about the wellbeing of infants and children everywhere.

Clearly the U of A president and senate have not done due diligence in this choice. Mr. Brabeck-Letmathe is a career salesman who heads a company that has been challenged at shareholder meetings and in writing on these human rights issues, environmental damage and ethical concerns and has dismissed all of them.

It will seriously damage the reputation of the University of Alberta and the already diminished standing of the province as a whole.

Elisabeth Sterken, is the director of INFACT Canada, a national non-governmental organization that works to protect infant and young child health as well as maternal well-being through the promotion and support of breastfeeding and optimal infant feeding practices. Kirsten Goa is a member of the Breastfeeding Action Committee of Edmonton (BACE), an organization of mothers, health advocates and community leaders working to support breastfeeding in Edmonton.

Edited to add news coverage:
Nestlé given honorary degree amid protests - CBC Radio
Nestlé receives controversial honour from the U of A - CTV Edmonton
Protests begin against honorary degree for Nestlé exec - Edmonton Journal
Debate between U of A sociology professor Amy Kaler and President Indira Samarasekera on CBC Radio.
Guest op-ed in the Edmonton Journal by Amy Kaler