Baby formula

Nestlé under fire for ‘misleading’ baby milk tactics in Hong Kong and beyond

The Swiss multinational often ignored its own nutritional advice in its advertising around the world, with sales pitches to Hong Kong consumers being particularly problematic, a critical report says

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 9:02am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2018, 9:40am

The Swiss multinational Nestlé has been accused of violating ethical marketing codes and manipulating customers of its baby milk formulas around the world, with its supposedly misleading claims to Hong Kong consumers drawing particular scrutiny.

A new report by the Changing Markets Foundation has found that Nestlé marketed its infant milk formulas as “closest to”, “inspired by” and “following the example of” human breast milk in several countries, despite a prohibition by the UN’s World Health Organisation (WHO).

The study, which analysed over 70 Nestlé baby milk products in 40 countries, also found that Nestlé often ignored its own nutritional advice in its advertising.

Formulas sold in Hong Kong were marketed as being free of sucrose “for baby’s good health”, while in South Africa, the firm used sucrose in infant milk formulas.

In Hong Kong, it promoted some varieties of its baby milk powders as healthier because they were free from vanilla flavourings – even as it sold other vanilla-flavoured formulas elsewhere in the territory.

Nusa Urbancic, campaigns director for the Changing Markets Foundation said: “We have come to understand that companies manipulate consumers’ emotional responses to sell a variety of products, but this behaviour is especially unethical when it comes to the health of vulnerable babies.

“If the science is clear that an ingredient is safe and beneficial for babies then such ingredients should be in all products. If an ingredient is not healthy, such as sucrose, then it should be in no products. Nestlé’s inconsistency on this point calls into serious question whether it is committed to science, as it professes to be.”

Nestlé is the global market leader for infant milk products with a market share of close to a quarter. It has been dogged by the advertising issue since a 1974 reportsparked a worldwide boycott.

In 1981, the WHO adopted a strict code of advertising banning the promotion of baby milk products as being in any way comparable to breast milk. Nestle insists that it follows the code “as implemented by national governments”.

But the new report finds that it touted products in the US such as Gerber Good Start Gentle powder as “our closest to breast milk”, and sold its Beba Optipro 1 powder in Switzerland as “following the example of breast milk”.

Similar Nestlé products in Hong Kong and Spain were advertised as being “inspired by human milk”, and having “an identical structure” to breast milk.

The company did not respond to specific questions about the new study but a Nestlé spokesperson said it supported WHO recommendations and believed that breast milk was, wherever possible, “the ideal source of nutrition for babies.”

However, not all infants could be breastfed as recommended and “where needed or chosen by parents, we offer high quality, innovative, science-based nutritional products for mothers and infants from conception to two years of age,” the employee said. “We market these products in a responsible way at all times, and the claims made on our products are based on sound scientific evidence.”

Some academics, though, have highlighted the way that language used by corporates to promote infant milk formulas can sometimes mislead consumers about this.

Last year, Professor George Kent of the University of Hawaii wrote that describing a product as “closer to breast milk … is not the same as saying it is close to breast milk. New York is closer than New Jersey to Paris, but that does not mean New York is close to Paris.”

Breast milk is a “personalised” and continuously changing nutrition between mother and child that contains live substances – such as antibodies and immune-system related compounds – which cannot yet be replicated in a lab.