Bringing up infant formula to Swiss food giant Nestlé executives is kind of like bringing up “Song of the South” to Disney execs: they’d really rather not talk about it.
The company faced global boycotts in the 1970s and 1980s for marketing practices in developing countries; new mothers struggled to afford baby formula when their bodies stopped producing breast milk. Compounding the problem was that formula at time was far less nutritious than it is today—and it’s still not as good for infants as the real thing.
Now Nestlé has joined French supermarket chain Carrefour on a blockchain program that will track to quality and origins of its Guigoz Bio 2 and 3 baby formula. The Swiss food giant is the worldwide leader in infant formula, with about a quarter of the market Swiss food giant.
Built on the IBM Food Trust platform, the “innovative blockchain technology creates a new benchmark for transparency and the high standards of care required to ensure the quality of their… organic and infant products,” Carrefour said in a statement. The blockchain will track formula from the dairy to the shelf, allowing consumers to see the entire chain by scanning a QR code, it added. The pair already collaborate on tracking an instant mashed potato brand that promises French potatoes.
Tracking things like provenance or organic ingredients is less of an issue to customers in the poorest countries, where the concerns are more about using the product safely.
In Thailand, a 2018 Save the Children report found more than 900 violations of a World Health Organization (WHO) code designed to fight predatory marketing and sales of breast milk substitutes to new mothers in the poorest countries.
The problem with baby formula, particularly in the youngest infants, is that once mothers start using it, they generally stop producing breast milk. That forces reliance on the less-nutritious, man-made product. It’s been especially a big problem for decades in impoverished areas where mothers can’t afford it.
“In the 1970s, companies [including but not limited to Nestlé] would provide gifts for health workers and even dressed saleswomen as nurses to donate formula and give advice to mothers in poor countries,” according to Save the Children’s report, “Don’t Push it: Why the formula milk industry must clean up its act.”
It continued, “[g]iven the levels of illiteracy and limited hygiene and sanitation, the adoption of infant formulas coincided with a dramatic increase in deaths of very young babies from malnutrition, diarrhea and pneumonia.”
That’s why the WHO now has a code that strictly forbids free samples and a lot of marketing practices, among other things. Although Nestlé—which had about 25% of the market—is among the most vocal in supporting the voluntary restriction, aggressive marketing is now the biggest problem.
“However, the company falls far short of fulfilling its role as a market leader by failing to translate words into action,” the Save the Children report claimed. [I]ts on-the- ground compliance falls well below its scores for its commitments on paper.”
Nestlé, for its part, replied that it had industry-leading marketing policies, as well as a vigorous program in place for reporting and dealing with violations.