All Aboard for Ice Cream: Nestle Peddling Junk Food on Amazon River to Reach Brazil’s Slums

I have many things to do today and writing this post was not on my list. But as I was cleaning out my in-box, an especially disgusting news item caught my attention and writing about it is the only way I know to release my outrage. My version of screaming from the rooftop.

The offending article, on Bloomberg.com (Nestle to Sail Amazon Rivers to Reach Consumers) describes how the world’s largest food company will soon “begin sailing a supermarket barge down two Amazon river tributaries as it competes with Unilever to reach emerging-market customers cut off from branded goods.”

A supermarket barge? Has Big Food already run out of customers in cities and other locales that are more readily accessible by land? Cut off from branded goods? I don’t think these people are lost or have been camping out too long, they’re just living their lives. They probably don’t even realize they are missing out on Toll House, Raisinets, and Sno-Caps. But no matter, if there are people out there so backwards to still be subsisting on food found in nature, Big Food will find them, by land or by sea, and set them straight.

The boat, with more than 1,000 square feet of supermarket space, will journey to 18 cities, reaching 800,000 potential consumers in Brazil, and will even provide access for the disabled and elderly.

But how can these poor Bralizian residents even afford to purchase processed foods when they are probably struggling as it is? No worries, Nestle has that little problem all figured out too. According to the article:

Nestle sells 3,950 products in “popularly positioned” formats designed for low-income consumers. Smaller packs allow poor consumers to afford branded goods like richer shoppers rather than turn to generic alternatives. The Swiss company has a team of 7,000 saleswomen who peddle packs of Nestle goods door-to-door in Brazilian slums.

Translation: Because Nestle knows that poor people cannot afford the same super-sized packages commonly sold in the West, the company sells starter products to get poor customers hooked on their brands. The threat of “generic alternatives” looms large because, god forbid, these people figure out that juice is just juice and brand really makes no difference. The strategy of hooking poor people on smaller, cheaper goods is commonplace but was pioneered by the tobacco industry, which still sells single cigarettes in developing world. (The practice is banned in most other nations.)

And what, pray tell, will the floating supermarket carry? Surely, necessary food items for these hard-to-reach residents. Bloomberg.com notes, “The vessel will carry 300 different goods including chocolate, yogurt, ice cream and juices.” Yup, all the essentials. But wait maybe Nestle is taking care of the poor’s nutrition needs after all: “The company often adds nutrients such as iron, zinc, iodine and vitamin A to address deficiencies among the poor.” How heartwarming.

Nestle’s press release proudly announcing the vessel’s voyage adds:

The floating supermarket develops another trading channel which offers access to Nutrition, Health and Wellness to the remote communities in the north region of Brazil.

Who better to teach nutrition than the maker of Drumstick ice cream?

As I wrote about previously here, with Western nations becoming more and more saturated while regulatory pressures mount in the U.S. to curb unsavory marketing practices, Big Food has no choice but to step up the sales pace in the developing world. As the article explains:

Nestle had 2009 food and beverage sales growth in emerging markets of 8.5 percent, more than double the rate of its total business. The company has said it aims to boost the proportion of sales from developing countries to 45 percent in a decade from 35 percent now.

Just in case you missed that: Within ten years, the world’s largest food company will do almost half of its business in the developing world. That’s astounding by any measure of any industry.

And yes, Brazil is already showing signs of diet-related health problems. This article from Time magazine last year describes the concern over rising obesity rates found by Brazil’s own Health Ministry. While the numbers there are still small compared to here, as Nestle keeps reloading its ice cream barge to reach more “brand-deprived” poor people, it won’t take long before that gap narrows.

26 Responses to “All Aboard for Ice Cream: Nestle Peddling Junk Food on Amazon River to Reach Brazil’s Slums”

  1. GingerSnap says:

    Truly disheartening, and comically ironic at the same time…

    Once again, the newly found and ever popular “Health and Wellness” sleight of hand PR wordsmithing is being used to justify pushing unessential branded processed food onto vulnerable and influenceable rubes – nice! If this doesn’t represent the boundless voracity for hand over fist unsustainable corporate business growth, then I don’t know what does. This is not a matter of bringing nutrition to undeveloped communities around the globe; it rather has more to do with developing yet another market to sell ubiquitous, insipid, overvalued global foodstuffs.

  2. fabian says:

    it is all the ice cream wrappers that will float down the river that make me cringe

  3. jill says:

    This is sickening … Nestle should be ashamed. Big business should be ashamed. I am ashamed for them …

  4. Page Seven says:

    Great post.

  5. the quietist says:

    You really have a dismal, condescending view of these Brazilians. Can't they think for themselves, or is that the sole domain of "public health lawyers?"

    The romantic fantasy of the "Innocent Third-Worlder" — that semi-human creature of our imagination too stupid to understand that his pre-industrial condition is superior to the comforts and luxuries of modern society — is only a very slightly modified version of the 19th-century White Man's Burden.

  6. Michele Simon says:

    Actually, I have the same dismal view of all people, as borne out by the West's diet-related disease epidemic. How can we expect people to resist the call of industrialized, artificially hyper-flavored "foods" that are sold to us as the very definition of success, convenience, and modern living, not to mention happiness and even love?

  7. Anonymous says:

    Fortunately we have people like you to look out for us, Michelle. Whatever would we do without you?

  8. Jennifer Moiles says:

    I don't know where you find this stuff Michele – who would believe it if you couldn't see it? Gross. So sad how American corporations are polluting the world. I share your outrage and appreciate your passion for keeping us informed!

  9. Anonymous says:

    Hopefully the barge will also carry free choice, as your Great White Hope post conveys you do not believe they have any.

  10. Jimmy Chacko says:

    "The Swiss company has a team of 7,000 saleswomen who peddle packs of Nestle goods door-to-door in Brazilian slums."

    A company makes a investment in a poor rural area, trains a work force providing jobs and innovates a distribution method to deliver the new product and you sanctimoniously declare it an outrage. I guess only food lawyers have the wisdom and insight to know what’s good for the people, they couldn’t possibly make the choice themselves.

  11. Anonymous says:

    The main problem is that any proposed cure is worse than the illness. Junk food is bad for you, but taking away the freedom to eat, purchase, or produce it would be worse.

  12. townimbecile says:

    @Jennifer Moiles Nestle is not an American corporation. Perhaps this is a minor quibble, or perhaps this highlights my biggest fear: that rather than understanding these phenomena, people use them to see what they want to see.

  13. the quietist says:

    Michele, I actually agree with much of your agenda, but mostly as it pertains to educating consumers to make healthier food choices, and requiring producers to be transparent about their ingredients and food origins, etc.

    The problem, however, with blaming the profit motive for "the West's diet-related disease epidemic" is the following indisputable fact: for all the obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health problems caused by crappy, overprocessed food, life expectancy (and old-age life quality) has been going up, up, up, inexorably, since the industrial revolution did away with the "all-natural" food-production measures fetishized by romantic foodies who have never experienced how much it totally sucks to be dependent on subsistence agriculture. Foodism is the luxury of an advanced capitalist economy; tell people in rural Amazonas they shouldn't be eating Nestle chocolate because it's "unhealthy" and they'll probably laugh at you.

  14. Anonymous says:

    this is called progress. let the people decide.

    no wait we need bigger gov't everywhere

  15. Bill Cooper says:

    It's an outrage that these people will have access to a wide variety of food at a price affordable to them! How DARE Nestle do this? I'm disgusted by this! It is absolutely ESSENTIAL that people be given as few choices as possible — especially if those choices are choice made for them by people who know what's best for others, like Ms. Simon.

    A world in which human beings in developing parts of the world have access to the same consumer choices that people in the first world enjoy is a world I don't want to live in!

  16. Laurel says:

    I'm surprised no one has referenced Nestle's 'public education campaigns' in rural African communities in the 1970's to teach village women that Nestle infant formula was better for their babies than breast milk. It prompted a huge international boycott against Nestle that still exists today, and in which I participate. The Nestle boat seems to be in a similar spirit.

  17. Anonymous says:

    So Laurel, how's that boycott working out for ya?

  18. julia says:

    @ the quietist, @ Jimmy Chacko, @ Anonymous:

    This is not an example of providing choice; it IS an example of enticement, like a stranger offering you laced candy.

    This is not an example of "White Man's Burden" or "foodism;" it is an example of how much or how little businesses consider ethics in deference to their bottom line and how much we as a society should let them disregard the potential health ramifications of "doing business." (B/c all biz is good biz, right guys? How's the deregulation of the financial industry or the two wars and tax cuts under W worked out for the entirety of US, or the "Drill, Baby, Drill" mentality working out for millions of people in the Gulf Coast and beyond? But big gov't is BAD. Now I get it…)

    As far as Laurel's boycott of Nestle goes – I'm sure Nestle doesn't feel it at all. But I'm also sure that Laurel and her family are multitudes healthier for it. She can thank, as I do, people like Michele Simon and Michael Pollan for connecting the dots so that she can apply it to her life without having to take the time to do the research herself.

    Like it or not, folks, we're all in this together, and the damage we do or allow to be done on those without the resources to know better will result in damage to us all.

  19. julia says:

    AND @ townimbecile & @ Bill Cooper:

    See my comments to the rest of you teabaggers… ups – t party ppl

  20. the quietist says:

    Pretty weak comeback, Julia. You know you've won an argument when your opponent starts repeating cliched non-sequitors about war, oil, and teabagging.

    The fact remains that Michele and other foodies are no different than the puritan nannies who want to regulate other aspects of our private lives: control freaks who cannot abide when other fully rational, fully adult human beings make choices that they themselves would not. If you want to construct an elaborate set of rules regarding what you will and will not eat, go ahead. Perhaps you will inspire others to do the same. But why is it your business if they choose not to?

    Michele asks "how can we expect people to resist" corporate junk food, given their advertising campaigns. My answer is, I suppose, this: the same way that YOU resist — by choosing not to buy them. Or are you some kind of superhuman with free will that others lack?

    But…but…tax cuts and oil spills! If you want to persuade me that I'm wrong, you're not going to do so by channeling warmed-over political caricatures and irrelevant talking points.

  21. Thomas Purcell says:

    Looks to me like capitalism is doing a better job than government in solving a food access issue. God forbid, that poorer areas should have access to something other than rice huh?
    Typical argument from the left- anything that doesn't suit their way of life or choices THEY make for you is dangerous and a threat. Freedom of choice or access to other lifestyles is emblematic of their argument.

  22. Laurel says:

    For me, a boycott is more about making sure that my hard-earned money doesn't go to despicable companies. I do not flatter myself to think that how I spend my very modest income is going to seriously affect any single company; it's about the integrity of the way I spend my life.

  23. Laurel says:

    …and it is one of the tools capitalism affords us to "cast our vote."

  24. the quietist says:

    Well said, Laurel. As you say, a boycott is one of the best, most democratic ways to "vote" your conscience in a free society. As is persuading as many people as possible to share in the boycott.

    What's different is seeking to prevent, using the blunt force of state power, consenting rational adults from conducting their private, nonviolent, and commercial affairs freely, just because you yourself don't want to buy what is being offered.

  25. Bill Cooper says:

    "See my comments to the rest of you teabaggers… ups – t party ppl"

    And Julia completely undercuts both her argument and her credibility by not only engaging in idiotic name-calling, but patently FALSE name-calling.

    I know it's comforting to think that everyone who disagrees with you fits into a nice, neat little group, sweetheart, but the real world doesn't work that way.

  26. Chacko says:

    @ Julia

    What is about consumer choice that angers you? Why do you presume you know what's best for other people?

    You're willing to condom the 7,000 Brazilian women Nestle hired to poverty because you don't like what they do.

    I find the arrogant self righteousness off-putting, more so then a floating supermarket.

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