SEPTEMBER 1982 - VOLUME 3 - NUMBER 9
Nestle Pressures Notre Dame Students
Tries Splitting Church Criticsby Roldo Bartimole
The vote is in, the referendum is over, and the bully has a black eye.
"The vote? A better than two-to-one margin. The referendum? Of course, the continuation of the campus boycott of Nestle's products. And the bully? Nestle's field personnel, who used heavy-handed tactics when dispatched to Notre Dame last week."
So wrote the editor of Notre Dame's college newspaper this spring, covering what he saw as "a little piece of Washington-style, big-time lobbying and attempted intimidation" on the part of Nestle.
Nestle's unnoticed thrust on campus represents part of an all-out attempt by the company to beat its critics with a carefully orchestrated propaganda campaign. The strategy has two elements: highly visible public announcements of good faith, and behind the scenes pressure tactics to divide-and-conquer Nestle's opponents.
The Swiss-based Nestle corporation is the world's largest manufacturer and marketer of infant formula, a breast milk substitute that can cause serious malnutrition and death when taken improperly.
One million babies a year die from taking infant formula, according to an estimate by James Grant, UNICEF's executive director. Because of this health hazard, church, labor and women's groups in 1977 began an international boycott of all Nestle's products. The boycott is still in force.
Nestle has been trying hard to polish its image and rid itself of the boycott. This spring, the company announced it would comply with the World Health Organization's International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes (though critics claim Nestle is not doing so - see MM, July, 1982). It also established the Nestle Infant Formula Audit Commission, headed by former Senator and Secretary of State, Edmund Muskie.
Nestle has had some success with its effort. Many people are unsure whether the boycott is still in effect because of the publicity Nestle has managed to generate with its announcements. The mass media has ignored, however, the more private activities of Nestle, such as its lobbying effort at Notre Dame and its dealings with other groups supporting the boycott.
The Nestle drive at Notre Dame startled the student body, "There were a lot of lobbyists from Washington" around campus, remembers John McGrath, editor of the Notre Dame Observer at the time. "We considered it kind of strange. Just for a campus referendum in the midwest, in a medium-sized college, they put in a lot of serious effort. This was unprecedented."
Nestle's effort included the use of some questionable "strong-armed methods," McGrath and others charge.
First, Nestle pressured the school paper for more favorable coverage, says Kelli Flint, news editor of the Observer. One Nestle move was to complain directly to editor McGrath. "The Observer is grossly biased against the Nestle position in its reporting," one Nestle official told McGrath, and demanded that the paper rectify the situation, McGrath wrote in an editorial.
This direct approach having failed, the company urged students to call in and complain, remembers Flint.
Nestle, however, was not content to try to influence just news coverage. "They wanted more," wrote McGrath, "and what they could not convince The Observer to report, they attempted to buy."
The day before the referendum, Nestle took out a full page advertisement in the Observer, which sells for $280.00. Students perceived Nestle as trying to sway the election with money, says Flint. One line in the ad - "A great university like Notre Dame cannot be less than fair" - also did not go over big with the students, says Flint. "Corny" is how they viewed it, she recalls.
The company was not averse to using more traditional forms of influence-peddling, according to McGrath and Flint. To sway student opinion, Nestle went as far as "buying meals for `influential students,"' McGrath reported in the Observer. "It was just a form of bribery, we felt," says Flint.
Nestle ended up losing the referendum by an overwhelming margin; throwing its weight around "backfired," McGrath wrote.
But why did Nestle try so hard to win at Notre Dame in the first place? McGrath says the company may have wanted "to substantiate their side of the story" and chose Notre Dame because "Notre Dame has become known for its interest in Third World and humanitarian issues," and would thus serve as a victory that could be exploited on other campuses.
Nestle's anti-boycott strategy at Notre Dame emanated - as does all its anti-boycott work in the U.S. - from the Nestle Coordination Center for Nutrition, based in Washington.
The president and mastermind of this Orwellian outfit is Rafael D. Pagan, Jr. Even the Nestle public relations manager at the company's U.S. corporate headquarters in White Plains, New York, refers inquiries about the boycott to Pagan and the "Nutrition" Center.
Pagan refused over a dozen requests - by phone, in writing, and in person - for an interview with Multinational Monitor, concerning Nestle's approach to its critics.
But Pagan tipped his cards when he gave an off-the-record speech before the Public Affairs Council, an association of corporate public affairs personnel, on April 22. A copy of the speech was obtained by Multinational Monitor.
One of Nestle's goals, said Pagan, "must be to separate the fanatic activist leaders - people who deny that free, wealth-creating institutions have any legitimate role to play in helping the Third World to develop - from the overwhelming majority of their followers: decent, concerned people who are willing to judge us on the basis of our openness and usefulness."
"In particular," Pagan added, "we must strip the activists of the moral authority they receive from their alliance with religious organizations." This task Pagan takes very seriously. "When I came to Nestle last year," Pagan told his audience of public affairs people," I realized that the company's highest priority was to establish a dialogue with those church leaders who were supporting, or might support, the activist boycott against us."
Nestle's "tactics have been to fragment" the boycott, says Jonathan Churchill, a New York lawyer who acts as the chief negotiator for the International Nestle Boycott Committee. "There's been a great deal of effort on Nestle's part to divide the boycott," says Churchill, who has met privately with Pagan.
"The short-term strategy" of Nestle's "is to separate critics from the main institutions we represent," says Ed Baer, who works on the infant formula issue for the Interfaith Center on Corporate Responsibility. "One favorite Nestle technique," says Baer, is "red-baiting" - accusing opponents of being Communists.
"This strategy is Pagan's and he's sold it to Nestle's management," says Baer. "He's under a lot of pressure to make it work. It's a big-gamble."
Richard Ullrich, the coordinator of the Justice and Peace office of the Marianist Brothers and Priests in Baltimore, met with Nestle officials to discuss the boycott. "By having us hear their (Nestle's) side, they believed we'd be convinced of their sincerity and then we would call off the boycott," says Ullrich. They hoped "that would be symbolic and they could use that to convince other groups to call off their boycott."
Pagan has waged his campaign not only across the table, but also through the mails. Multinational Monitor obtained copies of a number of long letters Pagan sent to church groups and other organizations. These letters show Pagan and Nestle intentionally creating the impression that many groups are reconsidering, if not changing positions on the boycott, even though no group has actually stopped boycotting.
Pagan sent two letters on November 13, 1981, one to a group of pastors, the other to priests. Both contained this paragraph:
"We regret that so much strident rhetoric has often characterized the debate on this critically important issue. It is obvious, however, that more and more religious bodies are giving this issue the time, effort, and research it merits. We applaud these efforts. It is only through careful consideration of all the important aspects of this matter that all of us can manifest our concern for the children of poverty in developing countries."
Pagan's tactic of playing one group off against another comes through even clearer in an exchange of letters between Pagan and Terry Herndon, executive director of the National Education Association.
"We are sincerely at a loss as to what the NEA's specific goals are in their decision to boycott Nestle's particularly when other organizations are reviewing their past action regarding the infant formula controversy," Pagan wrote Herndon on November 20, 1981.
"We have had a number of meetings with other professional and religious organizations and, I must say, these other meetings have been considerably more fruitful," Pagan continued. "It seems that we can reach areas of discussion with most professionals that we have been unable to achieve with your group. Our other meetings have been characterized, however, by a mutual concern for the welfare of the people we serve in the Third World, while our meetings with NEA officials appear to be hampered often by apparent political considerations."
As at Notre Dame, the tactic Pagan and Nestle employ with church and educational groups reveal an organized effort to confuse and splinter Nestle's critics. This suggests the company may be more interested in altering the public perception of its practices than in changing those practices themselves.
"Nestle continues to aggressively market infant formula," says DougJohnson, director of the Infant Formula Action Coalition, so "the reason for the boycott, unfortunately, hasn't changed. Most of the change by Nestle is in trying to change people's minds."
Roldo Bartimole is editor of Point of View, a bi-weekly newsletter in Cleveland.