The Nestlé controversy has been bubbling for over fifty years. In the 70s, the food company faced a global backlash for the way it marketed baby formula in developing countries. Fast forward to 2024, consumers still remember the infamous scandal, but other controversies have also arisen. From the E. coli contamination in Buitoni pizzas to issues of added sugar in products, Nestlé has continually found itself in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

At Business2Community, we reviewed news articles, company announcements, and social media posts to provide a comprehensive overview of the most famous Nestlé controversies. As an aspiring or current business owner, you can use this guide to understand how to maintain a business, grow sustainably, and garner a positive reputation with your consumers and community.

Nestle Controversies – Key Facts

  • Nestlé has been involved in various controversies, with the most famous one being the 1970s baby formula scandal.
  • Along with other companies, Nestlé unethically marketed baby formula in developing countries as a breast milk substitute.
  • The company faced a global backlash, which led the WHO to develop the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in 1981.

Breast Milk Controversy: Nestlé Marketing Baby Formula in the Developing World

In the 1970s, amidst declining breastfeeding rates, Nestlé and other companies started marketing their baby formula products in developing countries. As a result of the marketing activities, many parents in these countries chose to bottle-feed their babies instead of breastfeeding them.

nestle formula ads example

In 1973, the British NGO War on Want asked journalist Mike Muller to investigate the subject. The next year, Muller wrote a report called The Baby Killer, exposing the unethical marketing practices of Nestlé and other companies.

Here are some of the marketing tactics The Baby Killer talks about:

  • Giving out free samples: As a part of its promotion campaign, Nestlé gave free samples of baby formula to hospitals and mothers.
  • Hiring people dressed in nurses’ uniforms: To close more sales, Nestlé and other companies hired “milk nurses”, salespeople dressed as healthcare professionals to make home and clinic visits.
  • Using mothers’ anxiety as a marketing tool: Although it may take time for mothers’ milk to come in, many women in developing countries were not aware of this and assumed they had a breastfeeding problem. According to a survey in rural Nigeria, only 1% of mothers had a serious problem with breastfeeding. The way companies marketed their products as a supplement to breast milk took advantage of mothers’ vulnerable situations.
  • Sanitation concerns in many developing countries: To prepare Nestlé baby formula, parents needed to boil clean water in a saucepan. However, the report documented cases where the formula was mixed with contaminated water or diluted, which led to severe malnutrition. At the time of writing The Baby Killer, 66% of houses in Malawi’s capital had no washing facilities and 60% had no indoor kitchen.
  • Literacy rates in developing countries: Mothers in some developing countries were sometimes illiterate, which prevented them from following the instructions to prepare the milk correctly.
  • Local advertisement strategies: Companies used the country’s local TV, press, and radio advertisements to promote the products.

According to several researchers, these breast milk substitutes had a bad effect on babies. A 2018 study estimates that 10,870,000 infants in low- and middle-income countries died between 1960 and 2015 because of the baby formulas being promoted. The deaths peaked in 1981, with 212,000 per year.

Consequence: Nestlé Boycott, Lawsuit, and New WHO Practice

The publication of The Baby Killer in 1974 marked the beginning of the Nestlé controversy. It was translated into many languages, including German, with the title Nestlé Kills Babies. Nestlé responded by suing the organization that translated the report, and ultimately won the case in 1976.

However, the controversy did not end there. In 1977, three years after the report was published, a Nestlé boycott started in the US. The boycott shortly escalated to Europe.

In response to the boycott, the World Health Organization (WHO) developed the International Code of Marketing of Breast Milk Substitutes in 1981. This code aimed to regulate the marketing of baby formula and promote breastfeeding in member states. Nestlé agreed to implement the code and to introduce its own policy in 1982 so it could regulate how it marketed breast milk substitutes.

Although the US boycott was dropped in 1984, organizations in some countries still boycott Nestlé. According to the UK-based group Baby Milk Action, Nestlé continues to breach the WHO code. The company denies it, saying it constantly refines its internal communications in line with WHO and the European Commission guidelines.

Nestlé remains a key player in the infant formula market, which was valued at $68.27 billion in 2022 and is expected to reach $174.66 billion by 2032.

Water Privatization Controversy: Exploiting Natural Resources in the US

As the world’s largest food company, Nestlé has a diverse brand portfolio, including beverages like water. In 2018, the company was accused of exploiting water resources in various US regions, including California and Michigan. For example, the food giant obtained 45 million gallons of spring water to bottle under its Arrowhead Water brand.

nestle water USA controversy


“These are people who just want to make money, but they’ve already dried up the upper Strawberry Creek and they’ve done a lot of damage,” said author and nutritionist Amanda Frye to the Guardian.

Consequence: New California Regulation to Prevent Nestlé’s Activities

In 2021, Nestlé Waters North America rebranded into BlueTriton Brands. The new company distributes various brands including Arrowhead Water, Deer Park Spring Water, Pure Life, Splash, Ozarka, and Zephyrhills.

Residents, community groups, and non-profits continued fighting against BlueTriton’s water extraction. Activists like Amanda Frye filed complaints with the water board, and community groups highlighted how years of water extraction drained creeks.

In 2023, California regulators ordered BlueTriton to stop using some natural springs in the San Bernardino Mountains. The decision came after eight years of hearings and was seen as a victory for community and environmental groups.

Child Labor Controversy: Ivory Coast Cocoa Farm Assessments

Between 2013 and 2014, the Fair Labor Association (FLA) conducted research on 260 cocoa farms used by Nestlé in the Ivory Coast. It found 56 workers younger than 18 years old. On a farm in Divo District, the company found evidence of forced labor, where a child worker hadn’t received his salary for a year. The children did not have identification documents or birth certificates.

In 2021, in a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, eight people claiming to be former child slaves took legal action against the world’s chocolate giants, including Nestlé. They said they were trafficked from Mali to the Ivory Coast, where they were forced to work.

Consequence: Backlash and Lawsuit

Nestlé received backlash but denied using child labor as claimed in the 2021 lawsuit. The US Supreme Court said the lawsuit against Nestlé could not proceed.

To address the root causes of child labor, Nestlé launched an income accelerator program in 2020. With the program, the company aims to provide education for children, empower women, and improve agriculture practices.

Food Safety Controversy: Bacteria and Lead Found in Nestlé Products

Nestlé was involved in a food safety scandal in 2022 when an 8-year-old French child was hospitalized two days after eating Buitoni frozen pizza, a Nestlé brand.

The French health professionals confirmed the child had an E. coli bacteria infection which could be related to the pizza. The company tested 2,000 samples in its French factories and concluded that an E. coli contamination of the flour was the most likely reason. After this incident, another child died of the same reason, and several others suffered from serious health complications.

nestle e coli controversy

This wasn’t Nestlé’s first food safety scandal. In 2015, tests conducted in Uttar Pradesh, India, found that Nestlé’s brand Maggi contained seven times the allowed limits of lead.

Consequence: Lawsuit, Ban, and Factory Closure

48 families filed a €250 million lawsuit against Nestlé France for gross negligence. In 2023, Nestlé France announced it would permanently close its Buitoni pizza factory.

As for the Maggi controversy, it led to multiple regional bans, including by the Indian Army and major supermarket chains. The Maggi ban in India lasted five months. It was lifted when other countries’ food standard authorities conducted tests and found that it was safe to consume.

Added Sugar Controversy: Low-Income Countries Have More Added Sugar in Nestlé Products

Swiss NGO Public Eye found that Nestlé marketed baby foods with high sugar content in low and middle-income countries.

The NGO investigated Nestlé’s baby cereal brand, Cerelac, in its main markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. It found that among the 115 Cerelac products, 94% contained added sugar, some of which were declared on the packaging, while others were not.

Graph showing the added sugar in Cerelac baby cereal's main markets

Rodrigo Vianna, a professor at the Department of Nutrition of the Federal University of Paraíba in Brazil commented and highlighted the dangers of adding sugar to baby food. Vianna mentioned that sugars can cause addiction, in addition to increasing the risk of children having nutrition-based disorders as adults.

Nido, another Nestlé product targeted at children, was found to have the same issue. 72% of the 29 Nido products examined in Africa, Asia, and Latin America had added sugars.

Graph showing the added sugar in Nido powdered milk's main markets

The findings of the report contradict World Health Organization guidelines and raise health concerns, including increased risk of obesity and chronic diseases. The WHO reports that obesity rates in people aged between 5 and 19 increased from 2% to 8% from 1990 to 2022. Although obesity was once associated with high-income countries, today, some middle-income countries have some of the world’s highest obesity rates.

Consequence: Criticisms of Double Standards

Nestlé received a backlash for having double standards, especially since it did not add sugar to the same products sold in high-income countries.

Cerelac’s wheat product was found to have zero grams of added sugar in Germany and the UK but this wasn’t the case in Thailand, Ethiopia, South Africa, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh.

Graph showing the added sugar content of the same Cerelac wheat product in different countries

Nigel Rollins, a scientist at the World Health Organization, called the situation problematic from both public health and ethical perspectives.

Consumers started a petition for Nestlé to stop adding sugar to baby foods.

Screenshot of a petition on Eko for Nestle to stop adding sugar to baby and toddler foods

Nestlé spoke to Euronews Health about the Public Eye report, and said “slight variations in recipes across countries depend on several factors, including regulations, consumer trends, and availability of local ingredients.”

The company also announced that it reduced the amount of added sugars in its infant cereals portfolio by 11% worldwide.

What Can We Learn from the Nestle Controversy?

According to Public Eye, Nestlé is a leader in the baby food industry, despite its horrifying controversies, controlling 20% of the market. With the slogan “good food, good life company”, Nestlé often highlights its sustainability, human rights, and ethical business projects.

That said, many people still remember the baby formula scandal. In its 2024 report, Public Eye used the following words:

Fifty years after the “baby killers” infant formula scandal, Nestlé claims to have learned from the past.

This shows us that there are long-term consequences of unethical practices, especially when they concern vulnerable regions.

For businesses, regaining customer trust and rebuilding brand reputation can be extremely challenging. Decades after the baby formula scandal, Nestlé got involved in other controversies, such as the added sugar, water privatization, and food safety scandals. Each time a new controversy has arisen, the old scandal has resurfaced, showing once again that consumers have long memories and hold companies accountable.


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