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Who runs WHO food policy?

Infiltration by the Food Industry

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In an article in The Guardian (January 9th 2003), health editor Sarah Boselely reports that The World Health Organisation (WHO) has been infiltrated by the food industry.

While people starve in the Developing World, the West is gradually realising the consequences of over consumption of manufactured food and drinks. says that “a few largely preventable risk factors account for 60 per cent of the 56.5m deaths annually worldwide”. The influence of foods containing fat, sugar and salt on diseases such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and obesity has been highlighted for some years. Fizzy drinks, especially colas with high concentrations of sugar and phosphoric acid, have been spotlighted for threatening “the bone development of children and teenagers … and increasing the risk that women will contract osteoporosis”.

Supporting the efforts of national organisations, WHO says it is currently consulting all interested groups to develop a global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. This sounds like good news, if, as the WHO hopes, an “open and transparent debate on the issue of diet and its effect on the growing burden of chronic diseases” is the result.

This may be too much to expect. The powerful food industry is unlikely to stand by whilst its profits are eroded.

The Guardian claims to have obtained a confidential report from an independent WHO consultant which finds that:

  food companies attempted to place scientists favourable to their views on WHO and Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) committees
  they financially supported non-governmental organisations which were invited to formal discussions on key issues with the UN agencies
  they financed research and policy groups that supported their views
  they financed individuals who would promote "anti-regulation ideology" to the public, for instance in newspaper articles.”

The author of the report, Norbert Hirschhorn, who investigated similar tactics by the tobacco industry, is particularly critical of the role of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). ILSI was founded in 1978 by a consortium of food manufacturing companies, led by Alex Malespina, vice president of Coca-Cola, until 1991. In spite of its high-sounding mission statement, ILSI admits that the funding of its regional groups comes “exclusively from industry”.

As reported by Frances Williams in the Financial Times, January 10th 2003, the WHO was quick to reject the Guardian allegations. Dr Yach, executive director for non-communicable diseases appeared to accept that the tobacco industry had sought to minimise efforts by the UN health agency to reduce tobacco use, but continued, “but food is not tobacco. The food and beverage industries are a part of the solution." He said that the Hirschorn report was “mainly of historical interest”.

"By keeping the work on the strategy open, transparent and public, there is no need for anyone to seek to influence the process," said Dr Yach (our italics). If only.

Further Information
Sarah Boseley, health editor, Guardian
WHO infiltrated by food industry
The Guardian, Thursday January 9th, 2003

Frances Williams
WHO denies food influence
Financial Times, Friday January 10th, 2003

Enjoy Healthy Eating
UK Health Education Authority, London .

J Adolesc Health, May 1994, 15(3), 210-5
Also: www.rediff.com/business/1999/aug/25cola.htm

The continuing saga of suppression of research on smoking and health by the Tobacco Industry.
Norbert Hirschhorn, MD (Supplement I April 2000)
www.globalink.org/tobacco/docs/secretdocs

International Life Sciences Institute
www.ilsi.org/

WHO Department of Noncomunicable Disease Prevention and Health Promotion
www.who.int/hpr/nutrition/

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