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

April 28, 1991|Jane Ayers | Jane Ayers is the author of "Hearts of Charity," to be published this year. She interviewed Doug Johnson in Minneapolis

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.

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