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UPDATE: Breast Milk Campaigners Fail To Talk Veneman Away From Nestle

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(Rewrites throughout, adding comment and detail.)

 

By John Revill

Of DOW JONES NEWSWIRES

 

ZURICH -(Dow Jones)- Former U.S. Agriculture Secretary and UNICEF executive director Ann Veneman Thursday ignored calls from baby milk campaigners and took a seat on the board of Nestle S.A. (NESN.VX), pledging to make sure the Swiss food giant adheres to World Health Organization codes on the marketing of breast milk substitutes.

Prior to Veneman's election to the board at Nestle's Annual General Meeting, advocacy group Baby Milk Action had called on her to refuse a seat on the company's board, claiming Nestle continues to break the global codes.

Baby Milk Action's Patti Rundall said the Swiss food giant "continues to be a major violator" of the 1981 codes aimed at promoting breast feeding.

The group says Nestle is promoting its baby milk formula, Nestle Nan, with the claim it protects babies and is the new "Gold Standard" in infant nutrition. However, the group claims that in fact babies fed on the formula are more likely to become sick than breastfed babies, and in conditions of poverty, more likely to die.

Nestle says it is fully compliant with the WHO codes and Veneman, after being elected to the company's board by 98.7% of shareholders who voted on the appointment, said she would make sure the company sticks by the rules..

"Nestle's policies are consistent with those of the World Health Organization. I will make sure that the code is complied with during my time on the board," Veneman told Dow Jones Newswires on the sidelines of the AGM.

Veneman was the first and only female US Secretary of Agriculture between 2001 and 2005. She left the job to become executive director of UNICEF, the United Nation's children's fund from 2005 to 2010.

She said she would take her seat on Nestle's board and use her strong background in child welfare from her time at UNICEF, where she promoted breast feeding within the first six months. She said she would look at nutrition, water and rural development during her stint at Nestle, which would also include monitoring breast milk marketing activities.

As well as Nan, Nestle makes a range of baby foods, including Cerelac and Nestum baby cereals and Gerber organic baby foods. Infant nutrition is the biggest of Nestle's nutrition businesses, which in total posted sales of CHF10.4 billion in 2010.

The WHO and UNICEF drew up the codes on marketing of breast milk substitutes in the early 1980s as part of a response to halt falling breastfeeding rates in many parts of the world. The code stipulates that manufacturers of breast milk substitutes shouldn't market their products in such a way as to induce mothers to give up breastfeeding in favor of the substitutes. The codes also call on governments and health services to promote breastfeeding.

Baby Milk Action is part of Geneva-based IBFAN, which links 200 groups in 100 countries and promotes compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breast milk Substitutes, which backs breastfeeding. The group supports a boycott of Nestle products.

Before the vote, Rundall said: "I really hope that Ann Veneman will reconsider joining the board until Nestle has shown it is stopping its harmful marketing. Or we hope she will make it a condition of her appointment to the board that they agree to abide by the code as a minimum."

She called on Nestle to "please back away from always trying to make money out of products."

"Sometimes you have to hang back and leave mothers to use breast milk and family foods," she added.

Nestle spokesman Robin Tickle said Veneman would be "a critical voice from civil society on our board to help us improve our performance and our continued full compliant with the WHO Code".

Nandu Nandkishore, executive vice president for Nestle nutrition, said the company encouraged mothers to exclusively breast feed during the first six months of a baby's life and "we encourage mothers to continue to breast feed as long as possible after that, with complimentary foods as appropriate."

"In this context there is a legitimate need for breast milk substitutes. These are marketed very ethically in line with the World Health Organization principals," Nandkishore said.

He said Nestle was the fist breast milk substitute maker to gain membership of the FTSE 4Good index and its performance would be audited annually, although Rundall said Nestle's admittance to the ethical stock index had only happened because FTSE had weakened its criteria, and UNICEF still noted routine violations by Nestle.

"It has nothing to do with Nestle changing its practices. We hope that the listing will promote change, but it is not a stamp of approval for the company," Rundall said.

One Nestle shareholder reacted angrily to the questioning by Baby Milk Action, which is a regular feature of Nestle AGMs.

"Has coming here become a philosophy, an identity? I am fed up; everything that is done by Nestle is attacked by you every year, it is almost pathological. Please keep your strength for the fights which are really worth it," the shareholder said.

 

-By John Revill, Dow Jones Newswires; +41 43 443 8042 ; john.revill@dowjones.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

April 14, 2011 13:36 ET (17:36 GMT)

Copyright (c) 2011 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

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