It is World Breastfeeding Week in Canada, so I went to Mississauga to see Syed Aamir Raza Hussain.
He works the graveyard shift as a taxi driver. I woke him up.
Hussain has been railing against giant food company Nestlé for 17 years, with only personal misery to show for it.
Until last month.
That’s when the film Tigers, directed by Oscar-winner Danis Tanović, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival. It is based on Hussain’s life.
Bollywood heartthrob Emraan Hashmi plays a Nestlé salesman in Sialkot, Pakistan, who blows the whistle on his own practices for the company, plying pediatric doctors and nurses with gifts, and expecting that in return, they would ply new mothers with Nestlé’s formula.
Those practices were encouraged by the company, Hussain said.
They would not just be unethical and illegal in many countries. They could be lethal.
In the film, Hussain’s character discovers this when a doctor leads him into a ward filled with severely malnourished babies, with sunken faces and twiglike arms.
“Those babies are dying because of your company’s formula,” the doctor says.
Hussain said the film is 95 per cent accurate.
Nestlé Canada’s Catherine O’Brien, whom I contacted, responded that the events in the film “seriously misrepresent the facts about our activities” and that Hussain’s allegations are “not at all consistent with our policy and practices on responsible marketing of breast milk substitutes.”
You, like me, might think you’ve entered a time warp, and that Hussain’s story is from the 1960s, before the international boycott against Nestlé. Or the 1970s, before the World Health Assembly passed the “International Code for the Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes” to protect new mothers and babies from the commercial claws of formula companies.
The Code calls, among other things, for countries to ban gifts from suppliers/distributors to health-care workers because all health systems — but particularly poor ones — are vulnerable to bribery.
Why else would doctors prescribe expensive formulas to poor mothers unnecessarily, when breastfeeding is recognized by the World Health Organization as the cheapest, most effective medicine — building immune systems and preventing potentially fatal diarrhea and pneumonia?
But Hussain worked as a “medical delegate” for Nestlé from 1994 to 1997 — a teenager’s lifetime since the Code was passed.
That’s the most infuriating thing about his story: He launched a battle we all thought we’d won long ago.
Hussain quit. Then, spurred by his conscience, he went public.
He flew to Europe and released a fulsome account of what he’d done as a Nestlé employee. His report, called Milking Profits, included bank slips, written authorization of gifts for doctors from his supervisor and company invitations to be sponsored guests at medical conferences.
At the time, Nestlé’s spokesperson dismissed Hussain as liar and would-be blackmailer. He said there was a tape that proved it. A German documentary about Hussain was spiked. His credibility was questioned.
Instead of sounding alarms, the report was met with silence.
Meanwhile, his family in Pakistan went into hiding because of threats.
Hussain had come to Canada to release his report, and he filed for refugee status, which was denied in 2001.
While he was appealing the decision, both his mother and father died back in Pakistan.
“I was thinking I was the stupidest person in the world. I was away from my family for seven years and my kids were very small when I left them. I still feel that seven-year gap between me and them,” said Hussain, now 45.
In Pakistan, the Code was finally put into law in 2002.
But, Save the Children reported that one-fifth of the health professionals in Pakistan it surveyed in 2012 admitted they’d received gifts from breast milk supplement companies, mostly Nestlé.
The German documentary wasn’t the only one about Hussain that was spiked, said Patti Rundall, the co-chair of the International Baby Food Action Network. There were many others. “But then Nestlé would turn up with the tape and they all got scared,” she said.
Hussain figured Tigers would follow those well-worn tracks. He first met with the director and writer in 2006. Years passed. “I was fed up. I figured nobody would take the risk,” Hussain said. “I just listened to them on the phone, with manners, but I was exhausted.”
It wasn’t until two weeks before the movie’s premier, when it appeared on the TIFF website, that he understood his story would finally be told.
He went to a private screening last month, and met Bollywood’s Hashmi. Then, he flew to San Sebastian for the film festival there.
The spectators gave Hussain a standing ovation, which made him cry.
The belief in his story and recognition of his personal sacrifice was “better than the Nobel Prize for me,” he said. “This is my contribution to the world. Even if I save the life of one baby, that is more than enough . . .”
Once Tigers is in commercial theatres, go see it. And if you hop a cab and recognize Hussain, shake his hand and tell him he’s a hero.
This story was originally published here