Look at who the Niti Aayog is consulting – Times of India (blog)
International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is globally known for being a front organisation for food companies, soft drink companies and agrochemical manufacturers. There have been several reports on how ILSI has funded studies to oppose or dilute public health measures involving regulation of the food industry to tackle obesity. ILSI’s dubious role in influencing policy both at the level of national governments and at the global level is nothing new.
A WHO report as far back as 2000 had identified ILSI as an example of industry’s involvement and funding of “seemingly unbiased scientific groups” to manipulate political and scientific debate on health and tobacco control. In 2003, yet another report of an independent consultant of WHO on how the food industry had infiltrated the organisation pointed out: “One industry-led organisation, International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), has positioned its experts and expertise across the whole spectrum of food and tobacco policies: at conferences, on FAO/WHO food policy committees and within WHO, and with monographs, journals and technical briefs.”
Despite such publicly available details on the nature of ILSI, which claims to be an independent scientific body, it is being involved in evolving a policy on nutrition in India. One would have thought the government would do a background check on those it involved to safeguard against vested interests hijacking public policy.
At the first meeting of the Working Group on Nutrition constituted by the Niti Aayog, on October 16, participants were asked to introduce themselves and declare if they had any conflicts of interest (verbally, not in writing, which is a departure from the global norm). Interestingly, barring the founder of Healthkart, which sells nutritional supplements, the rest claimed they had no conflict of interest. Those making this claim included ILSI executive director Rekha Sinha and Dr B Sesikeran, former director of the National Institute of Nutrition, who is currently on ILSI’s board of trustees and is a member of the Nestle Nutrition Advisory Council.
History of ILSI
ILSI was founded in 1978 by Dr Alex Malaspina, a long-time Coca-Cola Scientific and Regulatory Affairs leader, according to the Coca-Cola website, which goes on to say that he started ILSI to spearhead an effort to unite the food industry. It is funded by multinational food and agrochemical companies, including Coca-Cola, General Mills, Hershey’s, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods and Monsanto. ILSI, started with an endowment of $22 million with the support of Coca Cola senior leaders, today has over 15 regional branches that influence food safety and nutrition science in various regions of the world.
ILSI-India’s board of trustees is dominated by food and beverage companies – seven of 13 members are from the industry or linked to it (Mondelez, Mars, Abbott, Ajinomoto, Hindustan Unilever and Nestle) and the treasurer is Sunil Adsule of Coca-Cola India.
January 2003– The Guardian cited a report by Norbert Hirschhorn, an independent consultant to the WHO, detailing how ILSI had spread its influence across national and global food policy fora. Hirschorn’s report stated that there was reasonable suspicion that undue influence was exerted on specific WHO/FAO food policies dealing with dietary guidelines, pesticide use, additives, trans-fatty acids and sugar. The easy movement of experts – toxicologists in particular – between private firms, universities, tobacco and food industries and international agencies creates conditions for conflict of interest, stated the report.
December 2016– The New York Times (NYT) reported on how ILSI had funded a study to review guidelines on sugar intake. This review questioned the WHO’s 2015 guidelines recommending that adults and children cut down their sugar intake and larger public health measures that called for a reduction of sugar, especially in processed food. Critics pointed out that this ‘review’ was part of the food industry efforts to shape global policy and guidelines on nutrition by funding or supporting academics who questioned the role of junk food and sugary drinks in causing obesity, Type 2 diabetes and consequent health problems.
April 2017– ILSI had a special consultative status with the WHO, and in January 2006 despite complaints about ILSI members’ vested interest in public health matters, the WHO executive board had decided to maintain official relations. This had allowed it to attend WHO governing body meetings but excluded any collaboration by ILSI on normative activities, defined as “setting microbiological or chemical standards for food and water.” But ILSI is absent from the list of non-state actors (NGOs) in official relations with the WHO decided at the 140th session of the executive board in January 2017. WHO’s policy on conflict of interest “excludes those experts who have done consultancy/work or have directly, and in their personal capacity, received research grants from industry in relation to compounds on the JMPR’s agenda or having other forms of economic relations that may undermine their neutrality.”
Of course, the food corporations that fund ILSI’s ‘science’ are known to have used other fronts as well. For instance, in August 2015 NYT laid bare how Coca Cola had funded scientists to push the idea of “energy balance” or the need to offset calorie intake with physical activity, to deflect negative attention over its sugary drinks. Coke had provided financial and logistical support to a non-profit called the Global Energy Balance Network, which promoted the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise. Marion Nestle, the author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was quoted as saying: “The Global Energy Balance Network is nothing but a front group for Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s agenda here is very clear: Get these researchers to confuse the science and deflect attention from dietary intake.” GEBN was disbanded in December 2015 after detailed of Coca-Cola’s efforts to use the network to influence scientific research on sugary drinks surfaced.
In September 2015, NYT reported that Coke’s chief executive, Muhtar Kent, admitted that the company had spent almost $120 million since 2010 to pay for academic health research and for partnerships with major medical and community groups involved in curbing the obesity epidemic.
Again, in June 2016, the Associated Press reported how a study funded by an association representing the makers of Butterfingers, Hershey and Skittles, essentially candy-makers, came up with the startling finding that children who ate candy tended to weigh less. “One of the industry’s most powerful tactics is the funding of nutrition research. It carries the weight of academic authority, becomes a part of scientific literature and generates headlines,” stated the AP article.
When industry funds nutritional research
An article published in the journal PLOS Medicine in December 2013 stated that an analysis of beverage studies found that those funded by Coca-Cola, Pepsico, the American Beverage Association and the sugar industry were five times more likely to find no link between sugary drinks and weight gain than studies done by authors with no industry funding.
Prof Nestle of NYU also wrote in 2016 that 156 of the 168 industry-funded studies that she reviewed showed favourable results for sponsors. She said that playing up nutritional perks had become a critical marketing tool in the competitive food industry.
In spite of such abundant evidence of MNCs and their fronts like ILSI playing a dubious role in defeating or diluting regulation of the food, beverage and even tobacco industry, Niti Aayog has chosen to have ILSI in the working group on nutrition. Not only Niti Aayog but several ministries and top government bodies such as the Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) and the National Institute for Nutrition seem to have no compunctions associating with ILSI.