Remembering The Nestlé Baby Formula Scandal That Rocked The 1970s

After WWII, many western families with infants switched from breastfeeding to bottle-feeding. The latter was considered more civilized, more modern, and less messy. Mothers who opted to bottle-feed were ostensibly backed by science; formulas made by companies like Nestlé – whose founder, pharmacist Henri Nestlé, invented baby formula in 1867 – were full of nutrients and provided a great alternative to breast milk. 

Faced with a declining population in the western world during the 1960s, however, formula sales fell. Baby formula companies had to find a new market for their product. Some companies, like Nestlé, turned to developing countries, providing mothers with propaganda and samples to hook them on a new method of feeding their infants.

The Nestlé infant formula, however, wrought horrible effects in Africa, South America, and south Asian countries. Lost lives linked to Nestlé baby formula skyrocketed, culminating in a Nestlé boycott during the 1970s. The boycott didn't end the problem but rather spurred the call for international formula standards. 

Reminiscent of the Nestlé infant formula predicament is an even more recent water scandal in Africa. Both of these stories prove that corporate interests – namely money-making – often triumph over basic human care. 

  • Nestlé Sued A Publisher That Claimed 'Nestlé Kills Babies' – And Won

    The first attention-grabbing article about Nestlé's baby formula distribution practices in third world countries was entitled "Babies Mean Business," published in The New Internationalist in 1973. The article accused Nestlé of three things when it came to their business practices in the third world:

    "Creating a need where none existed. 

    Convincing consumers the products were indispensable. 

    Linking products with the most desirable and unattainable concepts—then giving a sample."

    The Baby Killer booklet, a 1974 British publication, was another tool in sparking the global conversation about baby formula. When a German publisher translated the booklet, changing the title to "Nestlé Kills Babies," Nestlé sued for libel. The parties spent two years in litigation and eventually won the suit. The judge did, however, urge Nestle to adjust their advertising and publicity. 

  • Nestlé Saleswomen Dressed As Nurses 'Counseled' Mothers About Formula's Benefits

    When Nestlé and other milk companies began introducing their products to developing countries, they waged a full-on campaign, dressing their representatives in nurse uniforms and sending them out to proselytize.

    These "milk nurses" visited homes and hospitals to spread the word about their innovative formula and, while some of them may have possessed relevant educational background, most did not. They also spent time at maternity wards, offering advice about nutrition and feedings while giving mothers instructions about how to prepare their Nestlé products. 

    In Singapore, milk nurses were so prevalent that they were banned from hospitals. As a result, these nurses would simply wait outside for new mothers to leave and then provide samples.

    In Jamaica, milk nurses were able to acquire the names of new mothers and visit their homes. In the Philippines, milk nurses visited public housing, locating homes with newborns and young children by the diapers hanging on clotheslines nearby. 

  • Mothers Lowered The Formula's Nutritional Value By Watering It Down

    Once mothers were dependent upon formula to feed their children, the product's cost became an issue. As a result, many women began watering down the milk to make it last longer. They would add as much as three times the recommended amount of water, severely lowering the nutritional value of the formula.

    When researchers in Indonesia investigated this phenomenon, they found that "only one in four women had mixed the milk reasonably close to its recommended strength." In a committee hearing on Health and Scientific Research held in the United States in 1978, Dr. Alan Jackson testified that mothers were stretching cans of formula, which were supposed to last three days for one child, for two weeks while feeding two children with its contents. 

  • Babies In Developing Countries Got Sick From Contaminated Water

    Mothers in underdeveloped countries were using water that rife with fecal organisms – among other contaminants – when mixing their formula. When a nurse named Fatima Patel, who worked with Peruvians, testified before the US subcommittee in 1978, she shared how difficult finding clean water for the formula would be:

    "The river is used as a laundry, as a bathroom, as a toilet and for drinking water... now, you can tell... but to get the fuel to boil that water, she has to go into the jungle, chop a tree trunk with a machete... and carry it on her back. No mother is going to use that hard-earned piece of wood to boil that water. So, the babies are drinking the contaminated water."

    Additionally, the bottles used for the formula were not sterilized. Despite instructions on the cans of formula and from the milk nurses, women often lacked sufficient heating methods to sterilize bottles – alternatively, multiple people could access only one pot, thus lacking the resources to prepare bottles properly. 

  • Nestlé Hooked Mothers – And Babies – Through Free Samples
    Photo: Nestlé / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Nestlé Hooked Mothers – And Babies – Through Free Samples

    Milk nurses gave away free samples to new mothers, providing the opportunity for them to either not breastfeed or to use formula in conjunction with breastfeeding.

    Once a child breastfed less or stopped suckling from the mother, however, the mother's milk would dry up. This led to an inevitable dependence on formula.

    While the financial burden of this dependence was significant, equally significant was the lack of nutrients and antibodies that babies were consuming from breast milk. Scientists acknowledged the importance of colostrum, the milk-like substance produced by a mother soon after birth, in building a baby's immune system. With fewer babies breastfeeding, the overall health of infants in third-world countries began to decline. 

  • WHO And UNICEF Traced Infant Fatalities To Baby Formula

    With concern about the health of infants in developing countries growing, world aid agencies like the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) began to compile data.

    They found that millions of babies were dying of malnutrition and diarrhea resulting from diseases like kwashiorkor and marasmus, brought on by protein deficiencies. Doctors traced these afflictions to the increase use of baby formula. Due to the growing dependence on formula, babies' immune systems were less able to develop, fight disease, and allow a child to survive infancy.

    Doctors even coined the term "weanling diarrhea," defined as "the collection of diseases in the infant, described as a syndrome, associated with weaning from the breast. It is attributed to the introduction of other food and loss of the protective properties of breast milk. "