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Response to Nestlé’s response to Globalization Monitor’s exposé of formula milk companies’ product development strategies and promotional practices in Hong Kong and mainland China

Re: Nestlé’s response to Globalization Monitor’s exposé of formula milk companies’ product development strategies and promotional practices in Hong Kong and mainland China

We welcome Nestlé’s eagerness to engage with GM regarding the concerns we raised regarding its the product development and promotional practices in Hong Kong and mainland China. We note that Nestlé claims to be committed to supporting breastfeeding by implementing a leading policy to market BMS responsibly. Our report suggests that this commitment is yet to be adequately reflected in Nestlé’s business practices; therefore, we hope to see prompt improvements and appropriate corrective actions regarding the issues raised by our report and this message.

We raised three issues in our initial correspondence with Nestlé:

Firstly, we demanded an explanation from Nestlé for not duly fulfilling the commitments it made to CMF (see p.21). Specifically, Nestlé promised to phase out sucrose from its formula products for infants aged between six to twelve months, to remove the nutritional advice it gave on the packaging of NAN PRO regarding the use of vanilla flavouring, and to phase out vanilla flavourings in formula products for infants under 12 months old.

One year on from the meeting between Nestlé and CMF in March 2018, during which the three commitments were made, Nestlé has only fulfilled one: phasing out sucrose from their products. While we appreciate this positive change in Nestlé’s recipes, we nevertheless find it unsatisfactory that this change would not have been made were it not for pressure from external stakeholders. We also take this as a testament to the necessity of our corporate monitoring efforts.

We are very disappointed that Nestlé has yet to fulfil the two other promises it made to CMF a year ago. Nestlé committed to remove vanilla from its follow-up formulas (S-26 Ultima Promil) but has not even presented a timeline for this to be implemented, despite promising CMF a timeline in June 2018. Curiously, during the past year, Nestlé found the time and resources to update the packaging of S-26 Ultima Promil but had not taken the trouble to remove vanillin flavouring from its composition. We thus question Nestlé’s priorities. We reiterate that vanilla flavouring is unnecessary and could burden infants and young children’s underdeveloped metabolism. We have been told that there will be a timeline “as soon as [Nestlé] have a technical solution”. We are not satisfied with this vague excuse and demand both an explanation for why Nestlé has failed to fulfil this commitment and a concrete timeline for the requisite improvements in its recipes to be implemented.

We are also disappointed that Nestlé failed to remove the statement on the label of its NAN PRO products, which claimed that its recipe does not contain vanilla or vanilla flavourings for babies’ healthy growth. We reiterate that this nutrition advice contradicts the recipe of S-26 Ultima Promil. We are astonished that Nestlé claimed it failed to change the labels because some of these “were already in the value chain or printed.” We believe a self-proclaimed leader in the responsible marketing of BMS should prioritise sending as clear and accurate a message to consumers as possible. Given that Nestlé updated the packaging of S-26 Ultima Promil without changing its composition in the past, we fail to see what is stopping Nestlé from updating NAN PRO’s label immediately.

Secondly, we questioned Nestlé’s use of terms such as “human affinity” and “replicating nature” to promote its illuma products, despite scientific evidence suggesting the 2’FL (the human milk oligosaccharide used in illuma) has no direct immunomodulatory effects.

Nestlé denied that the statements it used to communicate the characteristics of illuma imply that it is superior or equivalent to breastmilk. The Guidance on Ending the Inappropriate Promotion of Foods for Infants and Young Children, adopted in 2016 by the World Health Assembly, states that the material used to promote foods for infants and young children “should not include any image, text or other representation that is likely to undermine or discourage breastfeeding, that makes a comparison to breast-milk, or that suggests that the product is nearly equivalent or superior to breast-milk (author’s emphasis)” (see p.24). This means Nestlé need not have implied its products are superior or equivalent to breastmilk: merely comparing their products to breastmilk and suggesting their nutritional profile are “ever closer to breastmilk” would constitute a violation of WHO standards.

Nestlé defended its use of the phrase “inspired by breastmilk”; we clarify that it is phrases like “human affinity” and “replicating nature” with which we took issue in our report. Nestlé explained that it promoted its formula products as “closer to breastmilk” because “modern infant formulas are compositionally closer to human milk than unmodified cow’s milk.” That much is true, but it is not clear at all in illuma’s promotional material that Nestlé was comparing illuma to unmodified cow’s milk. Rather, by liberally using “closer to breastmilk” along with other phrases such as “replicating nature/replicating as nature intended” and “human affinity”, Nestlé is misleading carers and consumers into thinking the efficacy of illuma in terms of providing vital nutrients to infants and safeguarding their health is comparable to breastmilk. This blatantly goes against Nestlé’s claim that it is “[helping] health care providers and consumers in making informed choices”.

Nestlé also failed to directly engage with the studies we referenced in the report (see pp.23-24). The PLoS study debunked the common understanding in the health community that human milk oligosaccharides (HMOs) can contribute to immune development and protection against disease through the modulation of human dendritic cell differentiation and maturation by pointing out HMOs have no direct immunomodulatory effects. The other study, conducted by many Nestlé-employed researchers, conservatively suggested that “more prospective, randomised trials in infants comparing formula without and with HMOs are still needed to evaluate the clinical effects of this supplementation.” We stand by our initial conclusion that Nestlé’s irresponsible marketing not only grossly violates consumer interests but also poses a threat to public health, as Nestlé is portraying the nutritional gap between its formula products and human breastmilk to be much closer than it is, which could discourage breastfeeding consequently.

Lastly, we pointed out that many promotional tactics Nestlé employs constitute the cross-promotion of infant formula, which is prohibited by the Code, as well as legislation in Hong Kong and mainland China.

We welcome Nestlé’s admission that it has inappropriately used a special display to indirectly promote its stage one and two formula products (see p.30), and that it used a shelf talker that directly promoted a stage one formula product (see p.32). We demand a timeline from Nestlé for the corrective action to be taken and to be informed after the changes have been made.

We would like to point out that, contrary to what Nestlé claimed in its response to our report, its loyalty programme not only makes promotional offers for the purchase of stage three and four products, but also for stage two products (see p.33). Article 5.2 of the Hong Kong Code, which Nestlé cited, states that pre-packaged food for infants and young children may be promoted provided that the promotional practice does not promote formula milk or formula milk related products. Since regardless of its stage, illuma is a formula milk product, Nestlé’s promotional practice violates the Hong Kong Code.

We urge Nestlé to address these issues promptly and appropriately.

There are two other issues we would like to point out in this message. Firstly, Nestlé revealed that it applies the “voluntary Code of Marketing of Formula Milk and Related Products, and Food Products for Infants & Young Children […] in Hong Kong as it is stricter than our own policy.” We believe a self-proclaimed leader in the responsible marketing of BMS should hold itself to the highest standards; therefore, we urge Nestlé to adopt the strictest possible set of standards and apply them universally.

Secondly, Nestlé explained that it “[meets] all requirements set by the Chinese Authorities” regarding CFDA’s formula registration system. We clarify that our research was intended to show how ambiguity in the CFDA regulation allows BMS manufacturers to use subsidiaries and joint ventures to register more than nine products under their brand/group company. This renders it an ineffective means to reduce the widespread phenomenon in which BMS makers produce many similar formulas and introduce them to the market as distinct products to flood the shelves. Nestlé’s response confirms our suspicion.


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