Ex-Unicef head joins Nestle

Nutrition campaign groups worried, say Unicef supports breastfeeding while Nestle undermines it

By Ankur Paliwal
Published: Wednesday 04 May 2011

Ann VenemanThe recent move of Ann Veneman, former executive director of Unicef, to Nestle Board has left nutrition campaign groups worried. While Unicef supports breastfeeding, Nestle, the food and drinks giant, undermines it.

Before she joined Nestle Board on April 13, nutrition advocacy groups International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and Baby Milk Action wrote to Veneman requesting her to reconsider her decision. “Her decision has given a powerful public relation coup,” says Joyce Chanesta, chair of the IBFAN Coordinating Council. Patti Rundall, policy director, Baby Milk Action explains, “Nestle will get unwarranted good public relations through the image transfer from Unicef, and an impression that Unicef approves Nestle.”

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IBFAN and Baby Milk Action claim that Nestle, the food and drinks giant, violates the World Health Organization's 1981 international code of marketing of breast milk substitutes which prohibits promotion of infant milk formula. Baby Milk Action says that Nestle has added “protect” labels on its baby milk products in 120 countries. “Nestle claims that its infant formula “protects” babies from diarrhoea and strengthens baby's immune system. In reality babies fed on formula milk are more likely to become sick than babies fed on breastmilk,” reads a statement by Baby Milk Action.

“There is a clear conflict of interest situation,” says Arun Gupta regional coordinator, IBFAN Asia. “After serving Unicef which clearly recognises that Nestle violates international code, Veneman has joined the company,” he adds. Nestle continues to claim that it complies with the international code. The company is a global market leader in the baby food section.

In the past, Veneman has also been accused of supporting packaged food industry. During her term in Unicef from 2005 to 2010, her policies ensured that Unicef had less capacity to champion breastfeeding, mentioned an article published on the website of World Public Health Nutrition Association, a public health organisation with members worldwide. She has also been an active promoter of ready-to-use therapeutic foods (RUTF) for the treatment of acute malnutrition. “Unicef has significantly contributed to treat acute malnutrition, with our purchases of RUTF increasing from 100 metric tonnes in 2003 to over 11,000 metric tonnes in 2008,” said Veneman in a 2010 Unicef press release.

One such popular RUTF promoted by Unicef is Plumpy Nut, a high calorie peanut-based paste manufactured by Nutriset, a France-based company. According to Gupta, RTUF could be a solution to extreme malnutrition in emergency conditions like war or famine, but is not a solution to chronic malnutrition which accounts for 90 per cent of global hunger. But Unicef promoted it as a solution to malnutrition even in countries not experiencing emergency situations, adds Gupta.

Plumpy nut was also imported by Unicef India between August 2008 and January 2009 with an expenditure of Rs 11.5 crores without the permission of government of India. As RUTF is not a policy of the Indian government, the supply was discontinued. (Read Food and Malnutrition: DTE issue November 30, 2007).  After joining Nestle Board Veneman has reportedly said she recognises that Nestle does not comply with the international code but she pledges to fight from within to change Nestle's marketing of breastmilk substitutes. “If she could get Nestle to commit to stopping all health and nutrition claims on foods and formula for infants and young children it would be a great start,” says Rundall.

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