This month we are focusing on a brand well-known to pretty much everyone and anyone. A company that permeates through our society in far more areas and avenues than we realise, who are casually exploiting the environment and people in order to maximise profits.
Nestle is a Swiss transnational food and drink company, that has been titled as the largest company in the world for three years now (2014-2016). They mean business, with 29 of their brands having annual sales of about $1.1 billion! It is also one of the main shareholders of l’Oreal, and in 2010 introduced The Nestlé Institute of Health Sciences, which aims to develop ‘a new industry between food and pharmaceuticals, by creating foods with preventative health properties as well as skin research centres worldwide’.
The irony is that while Nestlé are out here pushing a positive image, concerned with health and nutrition, their business thrives on the suffering of millions. Here’s why.
P.s. I’m having trouble with adding footnotes so sorry for the numbers everywhere, I will try to figure it out!
Nestlé have had a history of corrupt practices, in particular a scandal in 1974, where Nestlé were accused of contributing to the death and illness of millions of children in developing countries.
In a bid to sell their formula milk, Nestlé encouraged mothers in poverty-stricken cities in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to bottle-feed their children with Western style infant milk, despite increasing awareness of breastfeeding being healthier. Nurses (qualified or not) would visit homes, encouraging mothers to buy the formula milk, playing on mothers’ fears of their children being undernourished. In addition, in exchange for handing out the formula, hospitals received freebies, including baby bottles, as well as free architectural services to hospitals to aid newborn care.
To make matters worse, mothers were diluting the formula milk in order to save money, but weren’t aware that ovediluting it, especially with contaminated water (many of the targeted women had no access to clean water1), could prevent children absorbing the nutrients in food, causing malnutrition. Reliance on baby formula is said to have led to malnutrition and diarrheal diseases, and hindered infant growth, including emotional and physical development, killing millions of children each year.2
Activists organized an international boycott that lasted until 1984, when Nestlé agreed to reform its practices. However, when the firm continued to violate labelling laws and its own promises, activists took up the cause once more and has continued since. Baby Milk Action has outlined a four-point plan with demands for Nestlé, but the company has yet to respond.
Asking a Famine-struck Country for $$$
Another scandal includes the time Nestlé had the audacity to demand $6m/£3.7m from Ethiopia, at a time when it was struggling with a famine in 2002. The money was compensation for an Ethiopian business that the previous military government nationalised in 1975. According to Oxfam, this money was enough to feed 1,000,000 people! In response, the Ethiopian government offered to pay $1.5m but Nestle stood by its demand. In the end, due to public demand, they settled for the $1.5m payment.
Workers Involved in Demanding Better Conditions Murdered
Nestlé has also been found to deny workers their right to protest for better working conditions. For example, in 2005 a former employee of Nestlé in Cambodia was murdered by paramilitaries. Luciano Romero had received death threats after being wrongly described by the local Nestlé management as a (left-wing) guerrilla fighter. A commander of the paramilitary group convicted of killing Romero gave evidence that his group was part-funded by the particular Nestlé company Romero had worked for. Nestlé management was accused of being aware of these activities and not taking necessary steps to protect Romero. However, Nestlé denies the allegations, and pointed out that Columbia was a dangerous place at the time, implying it was out of their control.
A more recent incident occurred in 2013, when a worker named Oscar López Triviño was shot and killed. He worked for Nestlé and had been a member of a union for Food Industry Workers (Sinaltrainal). A day before his death, a paramilitary group sent a death threat to two leaders of the union. Members of the union had been on hunger strike in front of the factory, demanding that various agreements were respected.
Since its creation in 1982, Sinaltrainal had received repeated death threats from paramilitaries and more than 20 members killed. 13 of those killed had worked for Nestlé5.
Exploiting Water Sources
This is a big one.
There have been a lot of issues regarding Nestlé and water privitization, particularly in areas with plenty of ground water. Indeed, the company famously declared that water should be defined as a need—not as a human right.
Groundwater is a drinkable, natural resource that can be accessed through wells and pumping. It can take hundreds to thousands of years to accumulate or replenish and is therefore not a renewable resource. Only 2.5 per cent of the water on Earth is freshwater, and this resource is becoming increasingly scarce over time. However big drinking water companies, particularly Nestlé, do not seem concerned, and are taking out gallons of water every second.
For example, Sacramento, California, is in the fourth year of a record drought, with one year of water supply left in its reservoirs – yet Nestlé continues to bottle city water to sell back to the public at a big profit. It is claimed that the company is draining up to 80 million gallons of water a year from Sacramento aquifers, even during the drought, while those living in Sacremento have had severe restrictions and limitations forced upon them. In fact, Nestlé pays only 65 cents for each 470 gallons it pumps out of the ground, and then sells it back to Sacramento with big profits. 1
Last month in Michigan, activists made complaints against a request from Nestlé to pump more groundwater, demanding that the Department of Environmental Quality reject the $200 permit to take 210m gallons of water a year.7 Amidst demands by activists in Michigan, insisting that the Department of Environmental Quality reject the $200 permit to take 210 gallons a year, inconsistencies in Nestlé’s permit application have been found. For example, in one region, Nestlé state that the flow of water per minute is 195 gallons a minute, despite the water being fairly still. In another region, a local surveyor estimates the water here in fact runs 195 gallons a minute, however Nestlé states that it is actually 2,058 gallons per minute. Evidence of dry regions where springs would flow and trout thrived 15 years ago are found, as well as a swamp where, 17 years ago, people wouldn’t have been possible to walk through. However, once Nestlé got involved around 20 years ago, people soon were able to walk through it with their street shoes!8
Many residents were upset after it was revealed that the Department of Environmental Quality wanted to approve a 167 increase on a well Nestlé owns in Osceola County. That means that they would be pumping nearly 210 million gallons of groundwater per year for $200. One individual pointed out how Nestlé was taking water for so cheap, while people in Flint can’t even get access to clean water.
This is also occurring in Canada. For example in Ontario, despite their permit expiring, Nestle was allowed to keep extracting water even in the midst of a severe drought. Nestlé has three permits to take up to 8.3m litres of water every day for bottling, while Nestlé Waters Canada (division of Nestlé Canada) has six Ontario permits allowing it to take an additional 12m litres a day. 11 When authorities in Centre Wellington in Ontario learned that Nestlé had put a bid on a spring water well in their region, they decided to counter with a competing bid, to safeguard the water supply for the township’s fast-growing population. However, Nestlé outbid, and the Centre Wellington authorities were unable to outbid Nestlé. Nestlé Waters Canada said it wasn’t aware that the counter-offer was from the township of Centre Wellington until well after the purchase was made. 1
Forced Labour in Thailand
A study conducted by Nestlé itself found that impoverished migrant workers in Thailand are sold or lured by false promises and forced to catch and process fish that ends up in Nestlé’s supply chains. The labourers come from Thailand’s much poorer neighbours Myanmar and Cambodia. Brokers illegally charge them fees to get jobs, trapping them into working on fishing vessels and at ports, mills and seafood farms in Thailand to pay back more money than they earn. “Sometimes, the net is too heavy and workers get pulled into the water and just disappear. When someone dies, he gets thrown into the water,” one Burmese worker explained. Underage workers were also found, and were forced to fish. Workers said they work without rest, food and water available is minimal, outside contact is cut off, and they are given fake identities to hide that they are working illegally.
Lead Found in Food
When a food inspector spotted a pack of Maggi noodles with a sign stating ‘no added MSG’ in India, he sent it to a lab for testing. It was found that the noodles did in fact contain MSG, however Lead was also found to be present, and had over 1000 times more than what Nestlé India had claimed.
MSG is a controversial ingredient that is legal in India but requires disclosure on products. It has been blamed for many health problems, including cancer. Lead is naturally present in small concentrations in air, water, and soil, and so it is expected that trace amounts show up in the food supply- but not 1000x over the expected quantity! Significant exposure to lead causes wide-ranging and serious health effects, particularly in children.
Due to a slow response from Nestlé , who repeatedly denied any problems with their products, there was a huge commotion, with national newspapers reporting the story, and word going round about plans to boycott the brand. In the end, 38,000 tonnes of Maggi noodles were destroyed after the brand was banned. From commanding 80% share of India’s noodle market, Maggi went down to 0 in just a month. Maggi returned to shelves in November 2015.
Last year, Amnesty found that many popular brands, including Nestlé, use palm oil produced by child workers in dangerous conditions. Children aged from eight to 14 were carrying out dangerous work without safety equipment, were exposed to toxic pesticides and regularly carried sacks of palm fruit weighing 25kg.
In addition, the researchers found that women were forced to work long hours under the threat of having their pay cut- earning as little as $2.50 a day in extreme cases. Workers were also suffering severe injuries from paraquat, an acutely toxic chemical still used in the plantations despite being banned in the EU and by the palm oil company Wilmar itself. Long hours were required in order to meet ridiculously high targets, involving highly physically demanding tasks such as operating heavy manual equipment to cut fruit from trees 20 meters tall. Attempting to meet targets left workers in significant physical pain, and they also faced a range of penalties for things like not picking up palm fruits on the ground and picking unripe fruit.16
Last year, Nestlé admitted that coffee beans from Brazilian plantations using slave labour may have ended up in their coffee, because they do not know the names of all the plantations that supply them- buying beans from middlemen and exporters in a muddled supply chain.
In these plantations, workers are often people trafficked to work for little or no pay, and forced to live on rubbish heaps and drink water alongside animals. In addition, it has been found that a Brazilian coffee worker earns about $2 (£1.42) to fill a 60-litre sack of coffee, with less than 2% of the retail price going to the worker. Coffee workers also often use toxic pesticides that have been banned in the EU, with workers complaining of difficulty breathing, skin rashes and birth defects.
Nestlé have been hit with several lawsuits accusing them of having abuse in their coca production chain.
For example in 2005, Nestle had a lawsuit filed against them, accusing them of being complicit in the use of child labour in the Ivory Coast. The plaintiffs, originally child slaves from Mali sold to plantations in the 1990s, say that Nestlé and other companies had aided and encouraged human rights violations, and were aware of the problem of child slavery in the region, yet continued to provide financial and technical assistance to local farmers to get the cheapest product. Nestle bid for the lawsuit to be thrown out, alongside two other companies, but recently the US top court rejected the bid. The plaintiffs explained how they worked 14-hour days under armed guard without pay six days week. Sleeping on the floors of locked rooms and given only food scraps, those caught trying to escape were severely beaten or forced to drink urine. Some had their feet cut open, with salt or pepper sprinkled on their wounds.
Just a few days ago, a district court in California unfortunately threw out lawsuits accusing Hershey and Nestlé of misleading consumers by failing to disclose cocoa in some chocolate brands may come from slave labour. The chief magistrate dismissed the claims, stating that it was not for courts to decide what’s on chocolate wrappers.
While transparency has increased, and Nestlé have promised to change- these promises have only been made because the public demanded it. We need to ensure we keep pressurising Nestlé to fix up and CHECK THEMSELVES !
There are many simple ways you can let them know how you feel, or to enquire about any of the controversies discussed above:
Email: send them an online message here at https://www.nestle.com/info/contactus/contactus?country=United%20Kingdom
Avenue Nestlé 55, 1800 Vevey, Switzerland
Love && Solidarity!