The Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India (BPNI) wrote a complaint letter to the country's Ministry of Health and Family Welfare about an event organised by the Nestlé Nutrition Institute (NNI).
According to the BPNI, the event (held in Dhule, Maharashtra on October 24 2018) was an industry-endorsed conference held with the underlying goal of influencing child healthcare professionals to recommend their infant formula and baby food products to parents of infants and young children.
Letter of the law
In the letter — dated December 12 and released to the press earlier this month — BPNI's national coordinator and technical director Dr JP Dadhich wrote that the NGO had "received information about a scientific programme for doctors" organised by the NNI at Hotel Spice Treat in Dhule.
Dadhich added that "communication to attend the meeting was sent to doctors on WhatsApp", citing India's IMS Act (Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Act) to justify the complaint.
According to the IMS Act, infant formula manufacturers, suppliers, distributors and retailers are not permitted to offer any gifts or financial incentives to child healthcare professionals or their family members in the hopes that they will recommend their products to parents.
The aforementioned industry professionals are also not allowed to sponsor seminars, conferences, meetings, workshops or courses targeted at child healthcare workers.
Dadhich then implored Ministry of Health and Family Welfare secretary Preeti Sudan (to whom the letter was addressed) to "initiate appropriate action against the NNI and others who have violated the IMS Act".
Sudan said the ministry had forwarded the letter to the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development, and that both parties were now investigating the claims.
She added that as soon as there was confirmation of an alleged violation by the NNI, the ministries would "take strict action".
Science, not sales
The NNI has denied the BPNI's allegations, saying it conducts scientific workshops for healthcare professionals to meet one another and discuss "science-based information".
The NNI spokesperson further said that this event was no exception, and that Nestlé's infant nutrition products were neither discussed nor displayed at the conference.
The spokesperson also pointed out that India's IMS Act did not "discourage or prohibit dissemination of scientific information", adding that "no payment or pecuniary benefit" was given to the conference attendees.
Suspicion and sceptisicm
The BPNI and its affiliates, however, remain highly sceptical.
Speaking to NutraIngredients-Asia, BPNI's central coordinator Arun Gupta said: "There's no such thing as a free lunch. The NNI provided meals in a five-star hotel to doctors while claiming the event was all about sharing scientific information.
"But there is no reason for them to have offered lunch and dinner to doctors in such an environment, when they can easily share technical or scientific information via email or on Nestlé’s own website."
He added that the BPNI sees no distinction between events organised by the NNI and Nestlé itself.
"We have no knowledge of any product samples being given out at this particular meeting, but whether such an event is organised by Nestlé itself or the NNI, we consider it one and the same. And as long as food or any complimentary item is provided, we consider it a sponsorship.
"According to the law, companies that violate the IMS Act in this manner must be tried in criminal court."
This is the second complaint the BPNI has lodged against the NNI in the past month, with the previous complaint concerning another 'scientific session' to be held in Delhi; the complaint led to the event being cancelled.
In addition to this, Nestlé is embroiled in another controversy in India, with an ongoing lawsuit alleging the presence of lead in its famous Maggi noodles.