* Shareholders to vote Thursday on Ann Veneman joining board
* Activists urge her to refuse or set conditions
* Nestle in dock for way it markets breastmilk substitutes
* Company says appointment good for code compliance
By Stephanie Nebehay
GENEVA, April 13 (Reuters) - Former UNICEF boss Ann Veneman should refuse a seat on the board of Nestle NESN.VX because the food giant violates a global code on marketing of breastmilk substitute, nutrition campaign groups said on Wednesday.
UNICEF, the U.N. Children’s Fund where Veneman served as executive director from 2005-2010, also sought to distance itself from the American, and said that Nestle is in breach of the 1981 code aimed at promoting breastfeeding.
Shareholders will vote on Veneman’s appointment in Lausanne at Nestle’s annual general meeting on Thursday. A Nestle spokesman said she would attend, but could not provide her contact details.
The International Baby Food Action Network and Baby Milk Action charged that Nestle changes the way it markets infant formula only when forced by binding regulations or campaigns that expose its practices.
“We therefore hope that you will recognise the risks of accepting the seat on the Nestle board of directors and will refrain from doing so, making it clear to the company that it is untenable for a former executive director of .... UNICEF to sit on its board while the company continues to perpetuate such practices,” the groups said in a letter obtained by Reuters.
Accepting the post would grant the Vevey-based firm a “powerful public relations coup”, they said, suggesting she should at least make the appointment conditional on improving Nestle’s practices.
Nestle spokesman Robin Tickle said Veneman would help “ensure our continued full compliance” with the code.
Activists are sceptical.
“The basic concern for us.... is the notion of conflict of interest, the revolving door,” Lida Lhotska, IBFAN’s European coordinator who signed the letter, told Reuters.
The Geneva-based IBFAN, which links 200 groups in 100 countries, promotes compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes that backs breastfeeding. The watchdog also endorses a boycott of Nestle products.
Some 150 countries implement the code to some degree, it says.
The World Health Organisation (WHO), a U.N. agency, endorses the code and recommends exclusive breastfeeding of babies for six months and for two years with complementary foods.
IBFAN’s latest report on practices, “Breaking the Rules, Stretching the Rules 2010”, accuses Nestle and other manufacturers of skirting the code’s restrictions on the promotion of infant formula. This includes the use of new premium brands for high-grade formulas that command higher prices.
The global annual baby food market is estimated at $31 billion, according to IBFAN.
Nestle’s shares were included last month in the FTSE4Good index, whose selection criteria include appropriate marketing of breastmilk substitutes, especially in countries where children are deemed at higher risk of malnutrition and mortality from inappropriate feeding.
“We are the only infant formula manufacturer to be listed by the FTSE4Good Global Index,” Tickle said.
UNICEF, which says breast milk is the healthiest choice for a baby’s first six months, distanced itself from Veneman.
“Ms. Veneman left UNICEF nearly a year ago and is now a private individual. UNICEF would not presume to comment on any personal choices,” UNICEF spokeswoman Marixie Mercado said.
“I can confirm that UNICEF does not take funding from Nestle. I can also confirm that Nestle violates the code.”
Veneman, a Republican who was agriculture secretary under President George W. Bush, was criticised at the time as being close to agribusiness. She already works as a Nestle adviser.