WASHINGTON — A commission of 11 physicians, theologians and researchers set up by the Nestle company to monitor its distribution of infant formula said Wednesday that it has concluded that the company has not been improperly "dumping" baby formula on Third World hospitals.
The panel, responding to recent allegations by a national consumer group against the firm, blamed the controversy on a misinterpretation of an international guideline on distribution of free supplies of infant formula.
"The agreement as we see it does not require Nestle to terminate supplies," said former Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Me.), chairman of the Nestle Infant Formula Audit Commission. "If the World Health Assembly wants manufacturers to terminate free supplies, it should say so."
The panel, formed as an independent body by the company in 1982, announced the results of its study at a news conference. It said the company is in compliance with the agreement it signed in 1984, under pressure from consumer groups, not to give Third World hospitals free supplies of the product to promote its sales.
The consumer groups contend that the company has continued to give the hospitals free supplies and that mothers who receive it often cannot afford to continue buying it when they return home after childbirth. The result, they said, is malnutrition and infection among children who otherwise would have been fed adequately with breast milk.
Last month, Action for Corporate Accountability, a consumer group, called for a renewed boycott of Nestle products in protest of the practice. A similar seven-year-long boycott against the company was ended in 1984 when the company signed the agreement.
Muskie said the panel determined that the company has provided free hospital samples only for mothers who need breast milk substitutes, without the intention of promoting sales.
Although the World Health Assembly--the policy-making arm of the World Health Organization--passed a resolution in 1986 asking countries to end free supplies of infant formula, that applies only to governments and was not part of the agreement Nestle signed, Muskie said.
ACA Executive Director Janice Mantell said the 1986 directive is a clarification of the original agreement and should be accepted.