Food

Nestle Stoops to New Low, Launches Barge to Peddle Junk Food on the Amazon River to Brazil's Poor

Has Big Food already run out of customers in cities and other locales that are more readily accessible by land?

Last month Nestlé announced that it, the world's largest food company, would soon start delivering its products to the far reaches of Brazil. But not in the usual way, through a distributor, which in turn delivers products for sale in actual stores. Rather, the plan is to sell to customers directly from its own ship. As the company explains, "The first Nestlé floating supermarket will set sail on the Brazilian Amazon to extend its reach to over 800,000 customers." The barge is dubbed Nestlé Até Você a Bordo-- or Nestlé Takes You Onboard.

Has Big Food already run out of customers in cities and other locales that are more readily accessible by land? And "supermarket" isn't really the right term, as such stores usually sell a variety of food, including fresh fruits and vegetables. Plus, even the processed foods sold by supermarkets are not all made by the same multinational conglomerate whose signature products include Raisinets and Sno-Caps.

So, what will the floating supermarket carry? Surely, necessary food items for these hard-to-reach residents, right? According to an article on Bloomberg.com: "The vessel will carry 300 different goods including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices." Yup, all the essentials. But wait, maybe Nestlé is taking care of the poor's nutrition needs after all: "The company often adds nutrients such as iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A to address deficiencies among the poor," the article reports. How heartwarming.

So how can these poor Brazilians even afford to purchase processed foods when they are probably struggling as it is? No worries, Nestlé has that little problem all figured out too. As Bloomberg reports: "Nestlé sells 3,950 products in 'popularly positioned' formats designed for low-income consumers. Smaller packs allow poor consumers to afford branded goods like richer shoppers rather than turn to generic alternatives. The Swiss company has a team of 7,000 saleswomen who peddle packs of Nestlé goods door-to-door in Brazilian slums."

Translation: Because Nestlé knows that poor people cannot afford the same super-sized packages commonly sold in the West, the company sells starter products to get poor customers hooked on their brands. The threat of "generic alternatives" looms large because, god forbid, these people figure out that juice is just juice and brand really makes no difference. The strategy of hooking poor people on smaller, cheaper goods is commonplace but was pioneered by the tobacco industry, which still sells single cigarettes in developing world countries. (The practice is banned in most other nations.)

As I wrote about previously, with Western nations becoming more and more saturated while regulatory pressures mount in the U.S. to curb unsavory marketing practices, Big Food has no choice but to step up the sales pace in the developing world. As the Bloomberg article explains, "Nestlé had 2009 food and beverage sales growth in emerging markets of 8.5 percent, more than double the rate of its total business. The company has said it aims to boost the proportion of sales from developing countries to 45 percent in a decade from 35 percent now."

Just in case you missed that: Within 10 years, the world's largest food company will do almost half of its business in the developing world. That's astounding by any measure of any industry.

Plenty of food activists are expressing concerns over how the developing world is fast becoming the dumping ground for Big Food. Hank Herrara, food justice advocate in Oakland, Calif, notes a particular irony in how the rainforests of Brazil are being destroyed to make way for the manufacture of more and more highly processed foods, while native diets are getting shunted aside:

We can be assured that the industrial food giants will dispense their wares in places now blissfully ignorant of what they are missing. I'm sure Nestlé feels confident that the consumer packaged goods coming off these boats are much better for the people than their own indigenous diets, whatever is left of those diets after the land has gone into soybeans for the American market, which produces consumer packaged goods for the global market....Oh, I get it now.

Striking a similar chord, Amit Srivastava, coordinator of India Resource Center, an international organization based in the U.S. and India, who recently published an article on a similar topic on AlterNet explains:

It is no longer a secret that the products peddled by the big food companies in the U.S. -- highly processed, and high in fat, sugar and salt -- come at a huge cost to the health of the American public. With increasing calls for restricting the consumption of these products here, companies such as Nestlé are looking to expand to the emerging markets to ensure their profits. But if highly processed foods are detrimental to the health of Americans, are they any good for people in India, China, and Brazil? The answer is clearly no. The same nutrition standards that we are aspiring to in the U.S., to significantly cut down on junk food, should be applied to the emerging markets as well.

And what about how Nestlé and other companies (such as PepsiCo) are positioning themselves as helping to feed the poor with nutritious and affordable food? "Adding nutrients to junk food is just another marketing maneuver by Nestlé to sell its products by suggesting that there are health benefits from junk food. But adding nutrients to junk food is one step forward and two steps backward -- no amount of added nutrients will negate the ill effects of junk food," Srivastava writes. "Developing countries don't need junk food aggressively marketed and sold to us; we have more than enough problems as it is. And our overburdened public health systems simply cannot afford yet another epidemic and one from preventable causes: consumption of junk food."

Nestlé would insist it is acting for the good of the people. In its press release, the company makes the barge sound like a humanitarian mission by "offering smaller and cheaper versions for more accessibility for low-income customers." Ivan Zurita, CEO of Nestlé Brazil, adds: "It will be a service to the population of the Amazon."

New York University professor and Food Politics author Marion Nestle (no relation) questions both the methods and the motives of the company. "Standard public health approaches involve asking communities what they want. Did Nestlé do that?" she questions. "You can't ignore the marketing that creates the demand for these products. We know that junk food leads to illness in rapidly developing countries but most people living in rural communities don't. So it's an unlevel playing field of information. Besides, Nestlé is not doing this out of altruism. They are doing this to make money off of poor people."

All of this is nothing new, says Tamara Gonçalves, an attorney with Projeto Criança e Consumo (Children and Consumerism Project) based in São Paolo, Brazil. The project is part of the Alana Institute, an NGO whose mission includes protecting children from excessive commercialism and preserving Brazil's culture and communities.

Gonçalves says that promoting junk food to poor people has been taking place in Brazil for a long time, and not only in Amazon regions. "Big companies such as Nestlé have been selling products in many favelas [shanty towns] all around the country, but especially in big cities like São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. As the economy is stabilized, the lower classes now represent a large new market. And these companies want to take advantage and conquer these new consumers," she said.

The Alana Institute is trying to promote awareness about healthy consumption among this population and is focused on educating parents about advertising, especially when directed to children. Gonçalves agrees with Professor Nestle that it's an unlevel playing field, in more ways than one. For example, most people don't even have transportation to get to a real supermarket, making them easy targets for door-to-door sales and the new barge. Then there are the educational challenges. "In Brazil, formal education is not always good and not everyone has enough awareness of what they are buying or what it represents," Gonçalves explains. "So an informed decision is not available in equitable ways. For those who are not able to make an informed choice, marketing can have a very strong impact. We believe that it is necessary to guarantee improved awareness so that people will be able to truly make their own choices."

The Alana Institute is especially concerned with marketing to children. Current estimates are that 15 and 30 percent of Brazilian children have problems with obesity or are overweight, respectively. Gonçalves says that although it is against Brazilian law, companies still market plenty of foods and beverages rich in salt, sugar and fat and poor in nutritional value directly to children. "So we are very concerned about how such marketing is changing eating behavior in our country. We have been fighting these abusive strategies to ensure children's protection," she added.

But there is a bright spot. "Recently in Brazil our government approved new regulation on food marketing," Gonçalves said. "This new law requires that the advertisement of products high in salt, sugar and fat and beverages with poor nutritional value come with a warning that says the excessive consumption of these problems can contribute to health problems."

Given that the Nestlé barge is one gigantic ad, will it include any such warnings?

While I am in favor of bringing people from all over the world out of poverty and I certainly think that everyone deserves the same modern comforts I have, we shouldn't assume that every aspect of Western society should be included in that picture. Drumstick ice cream shouldn't be the hallmark of modern living. We've made some mistakes along the way, and we have an obligation not to repeat them, and certainly not to export them.

Michele Simon is a public health attorney and author of Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines our Health and How to Fight Back. She blogs here.