Ms. Zhu's Long March for Consumer Rights

Feature Story - 2003-12-16
What motivated a mother from Shanghai to travel half way around the world to global food giant Nestle’s HQ in Switzerland?

Ms. Zhu askes Nestle to eliminate GE ingredient

In March this year Ms. Eileen Zhu Yanling was shocked to discover from the internet that Nestle'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. Ms. 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.

Eileen Zhu's anger was compounded by her previous trust in Nestle's products. Nestle was one of the first foreign food companies to become established in China and she grew up with Nestle products. She had also studied in Switzerland and was even taken on a tour of Nestle's Vevey headquarters by a friend. Eileen Zhu is aware of the strict GE labelling regulations in Europe and feels very strongly that large global companies like Nestle, 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 Nestle 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", says Eileen Zhu in a letter she will deliver to Nestle today.

In June Shanghai 2 People's Intermediate court accepted Ms. Zhu's case and in August, with Nestle 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. Nestle 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. Ms. Zhu is demanding compensation of 13.6 yuan (about US$ 1.6) - twice the price of the product.

We heard about Eileen Zhu's case in September and are very committed to helping her to voice her concerns to Nestle's top management today. Greenpeace globally has been campaigning 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.

Eileen Zhu is a very impressive character and we are sure that she will get a response from Nestle. She did write to Nestle headquarters in Vevey in September about inconsistencies in their labelling policy but was not satisfied with their reply. 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".

Despite her anger and sense of betrayal, Eileen Zhu has had a good dialogue with Nestle in Shanghai and hopes for the same from the company's Swiss headquarters. Her demands are (1) that Nestle adopt the same policy in China as in European countries, that is, to eliminate GE ingredients from their products and (2) in the process of phasing out GE ingredients, to pay full respect to the consumers' right to informed choice by properly labelling their GE products.

Since March, Ms. Zhu has consciously avoided buying Nestl? products, whenever there is a choice so if Nestle want to maintain a stake in the huge Chinese market we strongly advise them to listen to Ms. Zhu.

Ms. 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 Nestle selling unlabelled GE products in China. Within two days, more than 5000 people cast their vote on, one of China's most popular websites, to denounce Nestle's double standards. Many angry Chinese consumers followed up their virtual action with real action - newspapers reported that products were being returned to Nestle's offices.

On the apparent double standards that Nestle 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, Eileen 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 is ready to regain her trust in Nestle 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 Nestle to provide their kids with nutritious food. Please do not abuse the trust of these mothers and their children!"