MAY 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 5
Wyeth Plant Is Questioned by Vermont Community
What happens when an American company tries to build a factory in the United States which will produce potentially dangerous goods for export to the third world?
The answer is controversy, if the small town of Georgia, Vermont is any indication.
Wyeth Nutritionals, a subsidiary of American Home Products, announced in February its intention to construct one of the world's largest infant formula factories in Georgia, Vermont: population 2,818.
Soon after Wyeth's plans became known, Vermont residents grew concerned.
At a February 18 meeting in the town of Georgia where Wyeth officials presented the company's case, "I asked Wyeth about its third world practices," says the Reverend Marcheta Townsend, a Methodist minister from Georgia. "I was concerned about the promotion of infant formula and about its potential misuse."
The milk substitute has caused the death of one million babies a year in developing countries due to improper use, according to United Nations figures. In order to minimize the health risks, consumer groups and the World Health Organization have brought pressure on manufacturers of infant formula to curb their aggressive advertising of the product.
Wyeth responded, Townsend recalls, that "their product is wholesome and that Wyeth is not like Nestle; it does not push it on people." Townsend says "that's not true. They push and promote just as much as Nestle" (see sidebar).
The Wyeth issue shortly polarized the town, pitting jobs against morality, industry against the church and consumer activists.
The town of Georgia is located in Franklin County in the northwestern part of the state, where unemployment is running at 9.7%, compared to the state average of 6.6%. The Wyeth plant would employ 150 people, the company says. "The town of Georgia definitely wants it to come," says Townsend, noting that people are concerned about the unemployment problem.
"The local officials in Georgia and the development council are very supportive of Wyeth locating in town," confirms Russell Greene, director of the Franklin Grand Isle Regional Planning and Development Commission, and a member of Georgia's Industrial Council. "We certainly have no problem" with Wyeth's marketing practices, Greene says.
A number of Vermont citizens, however, do object to Wyeth's marketing practices, and on March 16 a group of them formed an organization , called "Wyeth Watchers." ', "We realize that jobs are ' scarce in Franklin County," Wyeth Watchers announced to the press on March 19, "but we question whether the people of Vermont really want to be host to an industry whose product causes so much suffering and death overseas."
Wyeth Watchers is conducting a petition drive calling on the company to "conform to stringent quality control guidelines" and to "conform with World Health Organization criteria" for marketing infant formula. The World Health Organization in May 1981 adopted a code which would prohibit aggressive advertising practices of infant formula manufacturers. Wyeth has not agreed to abide by the code, and Wyeth Watchers claims the company has "displayed blatant disregard" for it.
"Several hundred" people have signed the petition so far, says Peggy Brozicevic, a spokesperson for the group.
Hoping not to antagonize those who seek more jobs for Vermont, Wyeth Watchers does not categorically reject the proposal to build the plant in Georgia. "If they (the company) will abide by World Health Organization guidelines and use the same quality control for export as they do in the U.S.," says Brozicevic, "we won't oppose the plant."
The Vermont state legislature also has taken up the Wyeth issue, as resolutions have been introduced in both the Senate and the House encouraging Wyeth to abide by the marketing code established by the World Health Organization.
State senator Mark Kaplan, who introduced one of the resolutions, says "there is an awful lot of support in the state" for the resolutions, but that they will not pass because the legislative session ends in mid-April and the Republican leadership, which controls the legislature, is opposed to them.
"I wouldn't want this resolution to interfere" with the building of the plant, says Gerald Morse, the Republican senator who chairs the Senate agriculture committee. Wyeth "would be a great addition to a poverty area of our state."
On the House side of the legislature, "the women have definitely taken the lead," says Representative Ann Just. Realizing that the resolution has but a "slim chance of passing," Just, who is one of its primary sponsors, says it is a way of "planting the seeds for next year." Though she is in favor of the plant "because we need jobs here," Just argues "we ought to be doing everything we can to change (Wyeth's) marketing practices."
Construction on the plant is scheduled for late spring, with production slated to begin sometime next year.
Wyeth Watchers intends to "keep up the education campaign" says spokesperson Brozicevic, in an "ongoing effort" to bring Wyeth to accept World Health Organization standards for marketing.
Wyeth's vice president for corporate and government affairs, Steven Bauer, has "no response" to the Wyeth Watchers campaign. "We won't comment," Bauer adds, about the compa