It has not been a good week to be in the business of baby food. On Tuesday, Beech-Nut Nutrition issued a voluntary recall of 1,920 pounds of its sweet potato and chicken baby food after a small shard of glass was found in a jar. At nearly the same time, Heinz in Canada recalled their chicken with broth baby food when it was discovered that a faulty seal may have caused it to spoil.
Unfortunately, these stories are not unusual—the history of baby food production is surprisingly scandalous. Just last August, Heinz’s baby food in China was found to contain lead. In 2011, Nestle France found glass in a jar of banana baby food and called back 30,000 jars. In the 80s, Gerber was scandalized by broken glass. Each recall makes international news and can linger in the public memory long past its expiration date.
Beech-Nut’s quick decision to recall their product comes from hard-learned lessons. In 1988, the president and vice president of Beech-Nut Nutrition Corporation were sentenced in a case the prosecutor called “a classic picture of corporate greed and irresponsibility.” They both received one-year prison sentences for selling bottles of apple juice for babies that contained little-to-no real juice. The company paid $2 million in fines and confessed guilt in 215 counts of violating American law and admitted to the public that it had ruined a “sacred trust,” but only after being cornered: As regulators closed in on the company’s nefarious stock, Beech-Nut attempted to get rid of evidence by unloading into markets in Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. After the executives’ convictions, the company’s new president pledged a new path for Beech-Nut: from then on all decisions would be "on behalf of the babies."
Beech-Nut’s apple juice shame was one of the biggest scandals to rock the baby food industry, but it pales in comparison to the outcry prompted in the 1970s when Nestle launched a campaign to sell infant formula to mothers across the world.
In the 1970s, activists published “The Baby Killer,” a report railing against Nestle for creating a baby formula addiction among mothers in third world countries and killing thousands, and maybe up to one million babies with a deceptive and invasive marketing campaign. Many mothers, convinced of the superiority of formula to their own breast milk, were unable to afford enough and began mixing it with too much water, causing babies to suffer from malnutrition and stunted development.
“In the squalor and poverty of the new cities of Africa, Asia and Latin America the decision is often fatal,” the report said. This investigation, which featured a disturbing photo of a malnourished child inside a feeding bottle, prompted a global boycott of the company and piqued the interest of the U.S. government and the World Health Organization. A few years later, the United Nations World Health Assembly called on governments to monitor formula sales. But for Nestle, the tarnish on its name was never fully scrubbed away, and boycotts continue with regularity to this day.
And so, “an abundance of caution,” as Beech-Nut announced it would be acting with for the recall decision on Tuesday, can never been overused.