Nestlé – The Infant Formula Incident
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...
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