Nestlé’s marketing strategy was first written about in New Internationalist magazine in 1973 and in a booklet called The Baby Killer, published by the British NGO War On Want in 1974. Nestlé attempted to sue the publisher of a German-language translation (Third World Action Group) for libel. After a two-year trial, the court found in favour of Nestlé because they could not be held responsible for the infant deaths ‘in terms of criminal law’, despite the fact that its aggressive marketing strategy had led to the deaths of thousands of babies who did not have access to clean water with which to mix the milk powder and, who needed the antibodies in their mother’s milk as an essential part of their immune system. Because the defendants were only fined 300 Swiss Francs (just over US$400, adjusted for inflation), and Judge Jürg Sollberger commented that Nestlé “must modify its publicity methods fundamentally”, TIME magazine declared this a “moral victory” for the defendants.
The widespread publicity led to the launch of the boycott in Minneapolis, USA, by the Infant Formula Action Coalition (INFACT) and this boycott soon spread to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Europe. In May 1978, the US Senate held a public hearing into the promotion of breast milk substitutes in developing countries and joined calls for a Marketing Code. In 1979, WHO and UNICEF hosted an international meeting that called for the development of an international code of marketing, as well as action on other fronts to improve infant and early child feeding practices. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) was formed by six of the campaigning groups at this meeting.
In 1981, the 34th World Health Assembly (WHA) adopted Resolution WHA34.22 which includes the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The Code covers infant formula and other milk products, foods and beverages, when marketed or otherwise represented to be suitable as a partial or total replacement of breast milk. It bans the promotion of breast milk substitutes and gives health workers the responsibility for advising parents. It limits manufacturing companies to the provision of scientific and factual information to health workers and sets forth labeling requirements.
In 1984, boycott coordinators met with Nestlé, which agreed to implement the code, and the boycott was officially suspended. In 1988 IBFAN alleged that formula companies were flooding health facilities in the developing world with free and low-cost supplies, and the boycott was relaunched the following year.
In May 1999 a ruling against Nestlé was issued by the UK Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). Nestlé claimed in an anti-boycott advertisement that it markets infant formula “ethically and responsibly”. The ASA found that Nestlé could not support this nor other claims in the face of evidence provided by the campaigning group Baby Milk Action.
In November 2000 the European Parliament invited IBFAN, UNICEF, and Nestlé to present evidence to a Public Hearing before the Development and Cooperation Committee. Evidence was presented by the IBFAN group from Pakistan and UNICEF’s legal officer commented on Nestlé’s failure to bring its policies into line with the World Health Assembly Resolutions. Nestlé declined an invitation to attend, claiming scheduling conflicts, although it sent a representative of the auditing company it had commissioned to produce a report on its Pakistan operation.