Douglas Johnson : The Boss of the Infant-Formula Boycott Reveals His Secret Strategy

Jane Ayers is the author of "Hearts of Charity," to be published this year. She interviewed Doug Johnson in Minneapolis

In the arena of global trade, the issue of corporate accountability is becoming a major concern for public-interest groups. Multinational corporations are demanding more free reign in their trade negotiations--which can often allow them to abuse international health and environmental standards in the quest for profits. Douglas A. Johnson, 41, asserts, "Companies need to learn to be responsible. The public's concern should be how to hold them accountable so that they are responsible."

Johnson, who projects a scholarly air, is chairman of Action for Corporate Accountability, orchestrating the Nestle boycott. This international boycott is aimed at controlling infant-formula marketing practices in the Third World--where, according to U.N. officials, misuse of the product is believed responsible for an estimated 1 million infant deaths annually--and to pressure Nestle to abide by the World Health Organization/UNICEF International Marketing Code, designed to curtail inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes.

Johnson is currently outraged over the heavy representation of industry on key aspects of the General Agreements on Tariffs and Trade negotiations. For example, GATT negotiators assigned an obscure agency, Codex Alimentarius, the job of assembling criteria for food products worldwide. Since Nestle has disproportionate representation on the U.S. and Swiss delegations of Codex--more representation than "97% of the rest of the world's governments"--Johnson is concerned that the U.N.'s International Marketing Code would be overridden as a "violation of free trade" under the new GATT provisions.

Johnson emphasises that ACTION "defends the real values of the United States" by opposing the fast-track legislation on GATT and by focusing on health care, consumer, farming and labor issues. In doing so, ACTION is seeking to contain the emerging role of transnationals around the world--especially their often negative impact on children and the environment.

Before his work with ACTION, Johnson spent many years developing programs for Latin American projects and he is now an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington. In addition to his work there, Johnson serves as executive director of the Center for Victims of Torture, based in Minneapolis, where he lives with his wife, Kathryn Sikkink, a professor of Latin American politics at the University of Minnesota.

Question: Can you explain the Codex Alimentarius and how it pertains to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and to the Nestle boycott?

Answer: Codex Alimentarius is a semi-regulatory agency. It really has no regulations, authority or power, because, as an international agency, most countries are refusing to delegate authority over their sovereignty. But it would be akin to something like the FDA or some other program for food labeling and food standards--not for marketing standards related to food . . . .

It has, from its beginning, been dominated by big corporations . . . . When we were approaching WHO (the World Health Organization) and trying to push for some kind of international standards, the companies were trying to get it out of WHO and into Codex Alimentarius--where they would have a much better chance of controlling the debate . . . .

When we would begin criticizing Nestle for its marketing, their response was "We make the highest-quality infant formula in the world." . . . Well, that's not the issue--because whether it's well-made or poorly made, is it appropriate in these circumstances?

The first issue is that the No. 1 standard for quality is not infant formula--which is always a secondary, less nutritious product than human milk. The standard is human milk, and anything other than human milk is only a substitute, and consequently a risk factor . . . . Human milk . . . contains antibodies; it contains a number of enzymes that help the child develop his or her immunological system. Also, it's free, always the right temperature, sterile, readily available at any point and the perfect example of demand-supply. The more the child demands, the more the mother can create and supply. So that's the standard by which everything else has to be judged.

The second issue is the circumstances under which this less nutritional product is being used. The correct use of infant formula requires sterile technique . . . . Where the companies are marketing infant formula is to people who have to walk blocks to get semi-clean water, who have no access to fuel and can't sterilize bottles . . . . That, in itself, has created a danger to the child.

The third issue is that it's expensive. WHO and a number of other agencies have looked at the cost of using infant formula correctly in every country in the world. They compared it to what is the average salary available to people in that community, and they have found, for example, in a place like the United States that correct use of the formula would cost perhaps 4%-5% of the average income. In a place like Jamaica, it would be 20%. In Nigeria, it might be 40%. In a place like Pakistan and India, it might be 80%.

That means that, if it is expensive for the family to use, mothers and fathers who do get hooked on this formula tend to overdilute it. There was one study done in Barbados that found 85% of the bottles investigated had overdiluted formula--so that the child was not getting proper nutrition. They were getting white water. A can that should last four days might be stretched to three or four weeks. That, of course, leads to malnutrition, and malnutrition leads to further disease . . . . It becomes a vicious cycle.

Q: One of the Nestle representatives on Codex was previously hired by Nestle specifically to stop the boycott. Is this significant that he is a delegate?

A: Yes. Thad Jackson worked on the counter-campaign from Nestle for the first boycott, and now is their prime staff person to try and defend Nestle against the second boycott. He has been appointed by the Bush Administration on Codex. I think this is indicative that Nestle sees this as an opportunity to undermine the impact and the importance of the (U.N.'s International Marketing) code, and that should be a great concern to everyone who cares about children.

Q: Will the U.N. International Marketing Code be obsolete as soon as the new GATT goes through? Will it be a violation of free trade to try to stop companies, such as Nestle or American Home Products, from marketing their infant formula, especially in Third World countries?

A: The problem, as I see it, is not so much that GATT supersedes or doesn't supersede. The problem has really been that during the last decade (when the code has been in place) the Reagan Administration fought WHO, threatened WHO and UNICEF, withdrew or lowered funding because of the issue, because of what they viewed as the agencies' "international activism." Groups like WHO basically curled up and died. WHO ceased to be useful on the infant-formula issue, because it was scared.

The present secretary-general appears to coldheartedly endorse the view that WHO should be removed from anything controversial. So what we have is a group of bureaucrats who have stepped back in fear of their jobs. In that climate, the code has not advanced as much as it should have in governmental circles.

Even in the United States, health-care policy is at the lower realm of importance for our Administration. In other countries, where the economic crisis is far more pronounced than it is here, health-care policy is in the lower realm. So, it's not so much whether or not Codex supersedes the code. But what it does is give the baby-food companies another lever to throw in the way of the code. It gives more power to the companies vis-a-vis their supporters and the ministries of commerce, the ministries of industry, and the ministries of international trade to "block" health-care programs. So, it's another tool to continue what is already a trend, and that is that health care and the lives of babies are never given the kind of attention and dedication that they ought to be by political leaders.

Q: What kind of action is the Nestle boycott taking now?

A: First of all, it is the Nestle and the American Home Products boycott . . . . Our campaign is not against Nestle, it is against the inappropriate marketing of breast-milk substitutes, regardless of who carries it out. Nestle is the corporate target, though, because it has 50% of the sales in the developing world. It is the only company in all national markets and, therefore, it sets the standard for everyone else. It is the most appropriate target for everyone. But when it does implement the International Marketing Code, then we need to deal with the competitors. Also, Nestle is a transnational corporation. It is the most transnational corporation in the world.

In the current boycott, Nestle's strategic growth is to come in Europe. They are trying to position themselves as the little Swiss company to become a Europeanwide company, and a Europeanwide presence. So the most important strategic growth for the company is now Europe. What we are trying to do is encourage the growth of the boycott, the importance of the boycott, in Europe. It is at a far more important level during this boycott than it was in 1984, and we are getting substantial leadership from the European Community on the new Nestle boycott.

Q: Why doesn't the United Nations enforce the violations of the International Marketing Code with Nestle? Why does there have to be a boycott?

A: The United Nations can't even force Iraq out of Kuwait. The U.N. has no constitutional authority over companies. Unfortunately, nobody does!

The problem, especially when you look at these appointments to Codex Alimentarius, is that the Bush Administration is just continuing the Reagan policy of less-than-benign neglect of the code through these destructive corporate-dominated appointments.

Q: The infant-formula companies argue it's their distributors in other countries who violate the marketing code. What is your response to this?

A: I think that if any other industry found that its distributors were doing something unethical and destructive, they would control it. They would fire those distributors and get others.

What I think has to happen here is that, once again, there are no penalties to the companies for what they are doing. Because there are no penalties, they don't care what their distributors do. There are no penalties for violation of the International Marketing Code. Unfortunately, consumer action is the enforcement mechanism now. The WHO code requires the industry to abide by it, but the WHO has no enforcement mechanism to see that they do. It recommends to national states that they develop legislation, and national legislation should include some form of enforcement.

Q: The United States doesn't have any form of enforcement?

A: The U.S. voted against the code. It was the only country in the world to vote against the code in 1981 . . . .

Q: Did Congress vote against it?

A: Quite the contrary. Both the Senate and the House passed a resolution condemning Reagan for voting against the code. We had the same problem there that Codex represents now.

Reagan was committed to stopping all forms of regulations on corporations. So, it was an ideological concern to not have the U.N. involved in regulations and to get the U.S. out of as much of regulation as possible. So, rather than considering the issues of what were the companies doing to babies, they only wanted to think about what can we do to support corporations? I think that Bush is continuing that blind thinking.

Q: What would you suggest to the members of Congress about this GATT agreement and the possible dangers to babies worldwide--especially since GATT is now on the fast track?

A: I would hope that Congress would give a message to the Administration that if they want this to remain on the fast track and if they want congressional approval, and if they want to avoid a major embarrassment--like Reagan received when he voted against the WHO code--then they ought to insist that the proper international standard for trade-related question should be WHO International Marketing Code.

I think it is going to be up to Congress to develop legislation that enforces the code in the United States, and that delivers a message to the Administration that it won't put up anymore with the bullying of WHO/UNICEF by the Administration. That those agencies need to be freed up and encouraged to do their duty to promote the code, because promoting the code is protecting children's lives.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World