Summary of Case and Results
In response to a pamphlet entitled "Nestlé Kills Babies," published in 1974 by the Swiss consumer/activist group, Arbeitsgruppe Dritte Welt, Nestlé Alimentana filed a four-count libel suit against members of the organization. The pamphlet was a reprint of an earlier one entitled "Bottled Babies," published by a similar British group. Both alleged that false advertising had prompted mothers in LDCs to use infant formula instead of breast feeding, and consequently caused the deaths of thousands of children. However, the original pamphlet had not mentioned Nestlé or any of the other companies by name, and thus did not raise the issue of libel.
Three of the charges, which Nestlé subsequently withdrew, related to allegations made in the pamphlet about Nestlé's promotional methods in LDCs. The fourth charge, which led to a judgment against thirteen members of the group in June 1976, focused on the defamatory title "Nestlé Kills Babies."
In his decision, the judge stated that the cause behind the injuries and deaths was not Nestlé's products; rather, it was the unhygienic way they were prepared by end-users. Although Nestlé won its case, the firm's victory was diluted by (1) having to pay one third of the court costs and (2) being told by the judge to change its marketing methods to prevent further misuse of its products. The defendants were ordered to pay $120 each in damages to Nestlé and two thirds of court costs.
Companies selling consumable products (foods, beverages, pharmaceuticals) to LDCs have long recognized the need to adapt their promotional techniques to their consumers who are, by and large, poor and illiterate. In recent years, one particular group of food producers--those firms making infant formula and other milk products--has come under severe attack by various religious, consumer and governmental organizations. Criticism focuses on two issues: (1) that companies allegedly use false advertising to induce mothers to substitute formula for their own milk, and (2) that firms are directly responsible when misuse of their products results in illness or death. The assault was dramatized in the recent Swiss case involving Nestl&é Alimentana.
The responses of milk product manufacturers have ranged from writing corporate policies on LDC marketing to organizing industry councils and holding meetings with pressure groups. But most significantly, companies have altered marketing practices in ways that other firms making consumable items should find instructive. These changes include
Tightening up direct selling methods. A common practice is to have "mother-craft nurses,"--local women who may be nurses, dietitians or midwives--visit clinics and homes to encourage doctors and consumers to use infant formula. Critics charge that these women are often unqualified to speak on nutrition and that they distort facts to make formula feeding more...