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12 August 2021

Food giant Nestlé flouts SA law. Again.

Food and beverage company Nestlé’s latest marketing campaign violates long-standing national health department regulations meant to safeguard the nutrition and health of South African children. It’s not the first time the company has done this but it should be the last.

On 14 August, Nestlé will host an online event with Media24 outlets You, Drum and TrueLove magazine. The webinar, “Free Stokvel Mom and Child Forum”, promises to tell “all moms, grandmas, aunties and guardians of little ones” everything they need to know about infant and child nutrition. Attendees also stand a chance at winning R500 in vouchers for use at a major grocery store.

Nutrition experts agree: Nestlé’s event and its marketing clearly violate 2012 national regulations aimed at protecting South Africa’s children from aggressively promoting consumption of  ultra-processed food, including products with high sugar content.

Civil society coalition the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) strongly supports calls by nutrition leaders for Nestlé and Media24 to cancel this event and remove all related advertising from their online platforms, including social media.

“Nestlé’s decision to ignore regulations meant to protect children’s health at a time when three-million children in South Africa have been affected by hunger in recent months is unconscionable,” says Tamryn Frank, a researcher at the University of the Western Cape’s School of Public Health.

“We know COVID-19 has left many families hungry, yet this isn’t the first time during the epidemic that Nestlé has flouted regulations — similar webinars took place in April and May,” she says. “We urge Nestlé and Media24 to do the responsible thing and cancel this and future events.”

South Africa continues to grapple not only with childhood hunger but also with increasing obesity rates driven in part by ultra-processed foods. More than one in 10 children under the age of five are overweight, according to South Africa’s latest 2016 Demographic Health Survey.

How Nestlé’s webinar violates health department regulations 

Advertising for the webinar prominently features three Nestlé products: Cerelac and Nestum cereals for babies six months of age and older as well as the Nido3+ milk beverage for toddlers who are three years or older.

All three products — Cerelac, Nestum and Nido3+ — are ultra-processed products that contain added sugars. Nestlé marketing of the event and products contravenes 2012 national regulations aimed at protecting infants and children from these types of food.

South Africa’s Regulations Relating to Foodstuffs for Infants and Young Children prohibit manufacturers or distributors of foods like these from providing incentives, enticements or invitations of any kind that might encourage the sale or promotion of products such as formula, powdered milks or complimentary foods aimed at infants or young children.

Nestlé’s webinar offers consumers the chance to win R500 — a clear incentive for attending an event featuring brand ambassadors for Cerelac, Nestum and Nido3+products.

Additionally, regulations prohibit companies such as Nestlé from producing, distributing or presenting educational information relating to infant and young children nutrition. Nestlé’s promise to parents that they will “learn everything [they] need to know about feeding [their] little one” again clearly flouts regulations despite the inclusion of a professional nurse on the webinar panel. Even Nestlé’s attempts to account for regulations in the fine print of its advertising falls foul of this segment of the law.

Regulations were meant to break a cycle with lasting effects

The World Health Organization (WHO), UNICEF and the South African National Health Department all agree: Whenever possible, all babies should be exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life. If possible, children can continue breastfeeding up until two years and beyond together with the addition of safe, affordable and nutritious complementary foods from six months.

Still, for decades, infant formula makers — including Nestlé — used aggressive advertising and donation tactics to convince many people, especially in resource-poor countries like South Africa, to needlessly feed their infants formula.

Companies profited from these ploys but formula-fed infants paid a high price, missing out on crucial nutrients and antibodies from their mothers’ milk. Outrage over Nestlé’s tactics eventually led to global boycotts of the company’s products before the WHO, the South African Health Department and others developed regulations to counteract aggressive marketing.

Today, only about one in three babies are exclusively breastfed until the age of six months, shows the 2016 Demographic Survey, in part because many families continue to introduce complimentary foods like formula early.

And companies like Nestlé are still breaking the rules. A 2020 study published in the British Medical Journal found numerous instances in which Nestlé or other similar companies used social media, including WhatsApp to flout South African and international regulations.

“Companies are finding new ways to reach people and sidestep regulations,” says researcher Catherine Pereira-Kotze, who led the study. “We need to ensure that they are held accountable.”

The Healthy Living Alliance is a civil society coalition working to advance food justice in South Africa to ensure that communities are able to exercise their right to affordable, nutritious food.

For interviews:

Chantell Witten

Nutrition Lead for SACSoWACH

WittenCB@ufs.ac.za

0714855893

Lisanne Du Plessis

Associate Professor, Division of Human Nutrition, Department of Global Health,

lmdup@sun.ac.za

Lori Lake

Communication and Education Specialist, Children’s Institute, University of Cape Town

lori.lake@uct.ac.za

Katie Pereira-Kotze

PhD Candidate, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape

kpereirakotze@gmail.com

+44 7389 778222

Tamryn Frank

Researcher and PhD Candidate, School of Public Health, University of the Western Cape

tfrank@uwc.ac.za

084 782 9035

Safura Abdool Karim, researcher at Priceless, SA MRC/ Wits Centre for Health Economics and Decision Science

Cell: 072 6137254

safura.abdoolkarim@wits.ac.za