Zhu Yanling's Long March for consumer rights

Chinese consumer challenges Nestle

Feature story - 7 January, 2004
What motivated a mother from Shanghai to travel half way around the world to global food giant Nestlé´s HQ in Switzerland? In March 2003 Eileen Zhu Yanling was shocked to discover from the internet that Nestlé´s Nesquik milk powder, a product she had been buying regularly for her three-year-old son, contained GE ingredients without this being indicated on the label.

Chinese consumer, Eileen Zhu Yanling, is suing Nestle for not labelling Nesquik to indicate inclusion of GE ingredients in China under consumer rights law.

Zhu's shock turned to anger as the thought of unknowingly feeding her son GE food preyed on her mind and she decided to sue the company for violation of her consumer rights. Zhu wrote to Nestlé headquarters in September last year about inconsistencies in their labelling policy but was not satisfied with their reply.

Zhu's anger was compounded by her previous trust in Nestlé's products. Nestlé was one of the first foreign food companies to become established in China and Zhu grew up with Nestlé products. She had also studied in Switzerland and was even taken on a tour of Nestlé's Vevey headquarters by a friend. Zhu is aware of the strict GE labelling regulations in Europe and feels very strongly that large global companies like Nestlé, irrespective of national variances in these regulations, should give the same information about ingredients to consumers whether they're in Europe or China.

"I am angry because Nestlé has not been truthful. This is disrespectful to Chinese consumers. I believe Chinese consumers have the right to know and to choose what they are buying for their families", said Zhu in a letter she delivered personally on her visit to Nestlé's Swiss headquarters on 16th December last year.

In June 2003, Shanghai 2 People's Intermediate court accepted Zhu's case and in August, with Nestlé China's agreement, the court commissioned a laboratory to test Nesquik for the presence of GE ingredients. The test was positive and was accepted as evidence by the court. Nestlé subsequently commissioned another laboratory independently without notifying the court. The results this time were predictably negative. The court has refused to accept the results of the second test as evidence. The date for the court hearing has yet to be set. Zhu is demanding compensation of 13.6 yuan (about US$ 1.6) - twice the price of the product.

Greenpeace has been campaigning globally to eradicate GE ingredients from food products for many years. Many food products already contain GE ingredients, so until these can be phased out and replaced by natural ingredients we have been pushing for those products containing GE to be labelled so that consumers can make an informed choice.

We heard about Eileen Zhu Yanling's case in September and committed to helping her take her concerns directly to Nestlé´s top management on December 16th last year. At the meeting a Nestlé representative told Zhu that they would continue to sell GE products worldwide with the exception of Europe where consumer rejection is strong. Nestlé's response has only strengthened her resolve to continue her fight. "I am very disappointed by Nestlé's response. I have travelled to Switzerland to tell them the concerns of Chinese consumers, but Nestlé does not seem to care." Zhu said after the meeting.

The meeting was conducted after Zhu gave a press conference in Lausanne. She demanded that Nestlé adopt the same policy in China as in European countries and eliminate GE ingredients from its products. She is also calling on the company to respect consumers' rights to an informed choice by properly labelling its GE products during the process of phasing out GMOs. Nestlé rejected both demands during her meeting.

"My demands were met with outright rejection. Nestlé is unconvinced that Chinese consumers are as concerned as European consumers on food safety and consumer rights. I will continue my fight and I will also ask more Chinese consumers to support me. Only a concerted voice from Chinese consumers will make their voices heard by Nestlé," said Zhu.

Zhu's battle against Nestlé has been receiving blanket coverage in all of China's main media markets and was also well covered in Switzerland. Many Chinese consumers are very well aware of Zhu's fight against Nestlé with many of them venting their anger on China's leading internet sites. This is clearly a story that Nestlé wish would go away but interest in the case continued at a press conference held in Shanghai today with over 30 media in attendance, including Chinese state broadcaster CCTV.

Eileen Zhu Yanling is a very impressive character and we are sure that she will eventually get a satisfactory response from Nestlé. She does not see herself as a 'consumer champion', "As a member of society I have a duty to promote individual rights within China's business environment. The rules for business practice must be fair to everybody".

Since March last year, Zhu has consciously avoided buying Nestlé products, whenever there is a choice so if Nestlé want to maintain a stake in the huge Chinese market we strongly advise them to listen to Zhu and the many Chinese consumers rallying behind her.

Zhu´s case, the first of its kind in China, exemplifies the growing concern about food safety and consumer rights among urban Chinese consumers. On 6th December 2002, Greenpeace released news about Nestlé selling unlabelled GE products in China. Within two days, more than 5000 people cast their vote on www.sina.com.cn, one of China's most popular websites, to denounce Nestlé's double standards. Many angry Chinese consumers followed up their virtual action with real action - newspapers reported that products were being returned to Nestlé's offices.

On the apparent double standards that Nestlé seems to be applying to its operations in different parts of the world, and their claim that loopholes in labelling regulations in the 'developing' world are not their fault, Zhu has this to say; "Nestle and other large companies should help develop rules, not exploit them [if they want consumers to continue buying their products]".

Eileen Zhu Yanling is ready to regain her trust in Nestlé if her demands are met with action and thinks that they could be a model company in China if they respect consumer rights. She is willing, along with other consumers, to work closely with companies to try and affect change and to realise their corporate responsibility.

"I am making these demands because there are millions of mothers in the world who trust Nestlé to provide their kids with nutritious food. Please do not abuse the trust of these mothers and their children!"

More news:

Shanghai consumer flies to Nestle for the right to know - People's Daily, 18 Dec 2003.

Food companies go GE-Free in China 18 July 2003.

The ingredients are hidden, but the companies can't hide 17 January 2003.