Global Activists Networks: The Campaign Against Baby Formula in the 1970s

Tehila Sasson, PhD Candidate, University of California, Berkeley, and visiting student, Department of History, University of Birmingham

In a global interconnected world, studying NGOs can teach us something new about politics. While today New Media helps forge global networks of activism, the origins of these networks can be seen in the campaigns of NGOs from the 1970s and 1980s, which helped educate the broader public and include ordinary people in international politics. An example of such a campaign was the one against the marketing and sale of baby formula in the Third World. The campaign was probably one of the most successful ones in the period, since it put pressure not only on governments but also on international organizations and multinational corporations.

The campaign against baby formula started in the UK, when the group War on Want decided to criticize the formula companies. In 1974 War on Want published a report to on the promotion and sale of powdered baby milks in the third world, and claimed that Third World babies were dying because their mothers bottle-fed them with western style infant milk, and accused the baby food industry of “promoting their products in communities which cannot use them properly; of using advertising… that persuade mothers to give up breast feeding.” The report publicized the story and turned it into a national – and later on an international – sensation. It received wide circulation in the British press and in June 1974 a Swiss organization translated the report into German though it also altered the title to “Nestlé Kills Babies”. In response, Nestlé sued the group for libel thus giving the group much publicity across Europe. However the trial highlighted the issue of bottle-feeding and placed Nestlé at the heart of the problem of malnutrition in the Third World.

In summer 1977 the issue of baby formula was taken up by a new American lobby, named the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT), which decided to start a boycott against Nestlé. In November of that year INFACT was joined by other organizations which called for a nation-wide boycott to the entire United States. In the following years the boycott spread to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, Britain and by 1983 more than 80 organizations – all in the U.S. and Europe– participated in it. While the boycott might have started as a grassroots network of local church-related hunger organization, by the 1980s it became an international movement to stop the selling of milk formula through a consumer boycott.

The main success of the boycott was to lobby for a Congressional Hearing in the U.S to enquire into the marketing strategies of the milk formula industry. The boycotters wrote letters to Senator Ted Kennedy, in order to secure public investigatory hearings. Kennedy agreed to chair the Senate Hearings, and on May 23, 1978 it was set to investigate the corporate responsibility for these issues. The Senate Hearings helped vocalize the calls for an international body to regulate the sale of milk formula, and to the creation, three years later, of a new International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes.

In October 1979, WHO and UNICEF sponsored an international conference in Geneva to discuss the problem of baby feeding in the Third World. The meeting called for the development of an international code of marketing, as well as action on other fronts to improve infant and young child feeding practices. In 1981 the World Health Assembly adopted these recommendations and presented the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The Assembly endorsed the Code as a “minimum requirement in all countries” and consolidated the discussions about milk formula that started in the 1974 campaign. The success of The Baby Killer campaign ultimately forced Nestlé to change its marketing strategies in the Global South and on 25 January 1984, Nestlé signed an agreement in which it pledged to implement fully the international Code.

Although the boycott was reinstated by the end of the 1980s, it never gained the same success as it did in the late 1970s. However, the success of the boycott still stands as it led to a global pressure on multinational corporations and the creation of an international system to regulate marketing strategies in the Third World. By looking at NGOs and pressure groups we can see how a politics beyond Westminster was created to help starving children abroad. In fact through the work of NGOs a global network and an international lobby beyond Westminster or DC was forged.

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