Nestlé Scientist’s False Claims Exposed
In the late 1980s, Nestlé sensationally launched an infant formula that the company claimed could reduce infants’ risk of developing allergies. As previously reported on the INFACT Canada website, Dr. Ranjit Chandra, who was paid to conduct the studies to justify Nestlé’s claims about Good Start, has had much of his work come under intense scrutiny for academic fraud and at least one of his studies has been completely discredited and retracted by the periodical that initially published it, the British Medical Journal. According to a three-part documentary aired on CBC’s the National, it now appears much of Dr. Chandra’s research may have been fraudulently produced. Evidently, the Nestlé Good Start infant formula study was never even conducted and the raw data Chandra cited could not have actually been collected.
Dr. Chandra’s research has been used by Nestlé for years to create a market for its product and convince both the public and the health care sector of its formula’s supposedly hypoallergenic properties. Advertising materials and glossy product monographs quoting Dr. Chandra’s falsified research have been sent to mothers and health workers around the world and as a consequence, unknown numbers of babies over the past decade and a half have been unnecessarily exposed to the risks of artificial feeding, which include increased incidence of asthma, diabetes, childhood cancers, and mortality.
According to UNICEF:
“Formula feeding is expensive and carries risks of additional illness and death, particularly where the levels of infectious disease are high and where preparation and storage of these substitutes is not carried out properly. Many studies indicate that a non-breastfed child living in disease-ridden and unhygienic conditions is between six and 25 times more likely to die of diarrhoea and four times more likely to die of pneumonia than breastfed infants. A recent study of postneonatal mortality in the United States found a 25% increase in mortality when infants were not breastfed…
If every baby were exclusively breastfed from birth for six months, an estimated 1.3 million additional lives would be saved and millions more enhanced every year.”
Nestlé has made extensive use of Dr. Chandra’s research. In Canada it sent out large colourful product monographs proclaiming the benefits of its hydrolyzed formula for infants at risk for allergies.
“Better tolerated than the leading standard cow’s-milk formula. Carnation GOOD START has been shown to be better tolerated than the leading standard cow’s-milk formula when fed exclusively from birth to infants with a positive history of allergy.”
Nestlé product monograph sent to Canadian physicians, dated 1991
Good Start monograph citing Dr. Chandra’s work in 1991
Nestlé also quoted Chandra’s work in letters sent to health professionals.
“Now, cumulative evidence exists from a carefully controlled, double-blind study by DR. Ranjit K. Chandra of Memorial University of Newfoundland. A group of at-risk infants who were fed GOOD START for the first 4 to 6 months were followed up over an 18 month period. These babies had significantly lower incidence of atopic symptoms (eczema, wheezing, rhinitis and G.I. symptoms) when compared with groups fed conventional cow’s milk or soy formulas.”
Nestlé in a letter to Canadian health professionals, dated July 26, 1991
Two letters from Nestlé officials to health professionals in the early 1990s, citing Dr. Chandra’s studies
Since 1981, the World Health Organization has recognized the damaging effects on infant health and mortality caused by the inappropriate and unethical marketing of infant formulas. The International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes (1981) and subsequent Resolutions of the World Health Assembly on infant and young child nutrition restrict the marketing of infant formulas to ensure that the health and lives of infants and young children are protected from the needless use of these products.
Although the International Code was passed 25 years ago, Nestlé has systematically violated it with astonishing proficiency. Despite WHA resolutions restricting the marketing of infant formula, the company aggressively advertises to parents, not only through regular promotions but by infiltrating the health system with free samples of its products and giving inducements to health workers. The company refuses to restrain its marketing in all but the most superficial ways. Regular independent monitoring has shown that Nestlé is the single largest and most prolific violator of the International Code and the WHO Resolutions which strengthen and clarify it.
An important tenet of the International Code was created in 2005 precisely to prevent scenarios like the Dr. Chandra scandal. World Health Assembly resolution, WHA 58.32, urges Member States:
"(4) to ensure that financial support and other incentives for programmes and health professionals working in infant and young-child health do not create conflicts of interests;
(5) to ensure that research on infant and young-child feeding, which may form the basis for public policies, always contains a declaration relating to conflicts of interest and is subject to independent peer review."
Although Nestlé has always been negligent in adhering to the International Code, these tenets should prove hard for the company to ignore in light of the Chandra studies.
The potential for bias – present in all research – is clearly increased when research is commissioned and funded by a party which is active in the market. In this case, Nestlé’s funding evidently created a conflict of interest for Dr. Chandra and compromised his studies to the extent that it enticed him to commit gross academic fraud. Such dishonesty will always be a possibility as long as companies like Nestlé violate the International Code and give scientists incentives to come up with research which will be favourable to their marketing interests. In corporate-sponsored studies sizeable sums are exchanged and huge profits are at stake. With both the scientists and the companies concerned so deeply with money, who is looking out for the health of the public?
For information contact:
Elisabeth Sterken, BSc, MSc, nutritionist
Director INFACT Canada/IBFAN North America
63 Burtch's Lane, Rockport, ON
NOTES TO EDITORS
1. Since the introduction of Good Start formula, there has been much doubt about the validity of Nestlé’s claims regarding the product. In 1990, charges were brought against the company under the consumer protection laws of nine US states. Investigations by Attorney Generals concluded that Nestlé’s advertisements cited studies that did not adequately support the corporation’s assertion that the formula was “hypoallergenic,” and were so misleading they could even deceive medical professionals. Nestlé escaped punitive action by agreeing to an Assurance of Discontinuance and ceased using the term “hypoallergenic,” replacing it instead with the assertion that Good Start could “reduce your child’s risk” of becoming allergic. Nestlé was required to stop using 'hypoallergenic' claims which they said were: “Misleading and deceptive...Those babies who had severe reactions to Carnation Good Start have paid a high price for the company's irresponsible conduct."
2. Dr. Chandra, it appears, was motivated by the huge sums Nestlé offered him to produce results the corporation needed in order to sell its new formula. This highlights the need for independent research into products marketed for popular consumption, especially those, like infant formula, which can have long-lasting health impacts on vulnerable members of society.
3. Research on risks of formula feeding show increased risk for allergy when infants are not breastfed.
Children in Finland who had been breastfed the longest had the lowest incidence of atopy, eczema, food allergy and respiratory allergy. At 17 years of age, the incidence of respiratory allergy for those who had little breastfeeding was 65 per cent and for those who were breastfed the longest 42 per cent.
Saarinen UM, Kajosarri M. Breastfeeding as a prophylactic against atopic disease: Prospective follow-up study until 17 years old. Lancet 346: 1065-1069, 1995
A longitudinal prospective study of 1246 healthy infants in Arizona, USA, aimed to determine the relationship between breastfeeding and recurrent wheeze. The results showed that non-atopic children at the age of six years, who had not been breastfed, were three times more likely to have recurrent wheezing.
Wright AL, Holberg CJ, Taussig LM, Martinez FD. Relationship of infant feeding to recurrent wheezing at age 6 years. Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 149: 758-763, 1995
4. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months, the introduction of high energy, local complementary foods at six months with continued breastfeeding to two years and beyond.
5. The Infant Feeding Action Coalition (INFACT) Canada is a non-profit, membership organization working to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. INFACT Canada receives no funds or other benefits from the Infant formula and infant foods industries.