In the face of rapidly increasing obesity cases with corresponding health risks, the Indian government last year planned to label ready-to-eat foods and processed foods with red warning labels. More than 70 million people are affected. Experts say that figure could rise to 123 million over the next decade as more and more people resort to processed foods that contain a lot of fat, sugar and salt.
But then powerful lobbies exerted their influence, and the government bowed to pressure from large food companies. To appease critics, the government appointed a group of experts to review the traffic light system. The man who was to lead the three-member panel only got the health professionals even more angry. Boindala Sesikeran is an experienced nutrition expert, but he is also a former nestlé consultant and a leading member of the International Life Science Institute ILSI. Behind the innocuous name lies a US organization that secretly, quietly and quietly infiltrates health and nutrition agencies around the world.
FOUNDED four decades ago by a Coca-Cola executive, ILSI now has offices in 17 countries. The institute is financed almost entirely by agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical companies. In the 1980s and 1990s, ILSI championed the interests of the tobacco industry in Europe and the United States. In the meantime, the lobbying organization has also spread to Asia and Latin America, in areas of great importance to the food industry.
The interdependence of ILSI with the authorities, which are supposed to combat the effects of unhealthy diets, is striking. For example, the Institute in China shares employees and offices with those who are supposed to fight the epidemic of diseases related to obesity. In Brazil, ILSI representatives hold seats on various nutrition panels previously reserved for university researchers.
The fox in the chicken coop
Not surprisingly, Sesikeran’s leading role in the Indian labeling committee raised the question of whether the buck would be turned into a gardener. Amit Srivastava, coordinator of the India Resource Center, sarcastically asked, “What can go wrong?” It is simply wrong and a clear conflict of interest for a food lobby group to decide on public health.
It is not only in India that ILSI’s activities, after decades under the radar, are being targeted by health organisations. The institute is no more than a front for the interests of the 400 members who funded its 17-million-dollar budget, including Coca-Cola, DuPont, PepsiCo, General Mills and Danone.
In the 40 years of its existence, ILSI has specifically recruited allies in universities and governments, for example through sponsored international conferences. It has also appointed influential scientists to committees working on topics such as food security, agrochemistry or probiotic additives. These conference topics served a greater purpose, critics say: It was primarily a matter of cultivating scientists and officials who would otherwise never show up on occasions sponsored by McDonald’s or Kellogg.
Focus on physical activity
Last year, research uncovered how ILSI’s China branch helped develop campaigns against obesity. The focus was on physical activity – an important prevention measure against obesity. However, this focus serves the lobby not to question eating habits. Coca-Cola is pursuing the same strategy in order to maintain its profit margin, according to the critics. In Beijing, ILSI’s relations with the government are so close that the ILSI chairmen immediately act as senior officials of China’s Agency for Disease Control and Prevention.
Internal e-mail traffic: “Danger to our business”
According to the “New York Times” the authors of a study in the USA have been able to view e-mails in which ILSI representatives, donors and allies in universities were called upon to fight against the ever-tougher stance of the World Health Organisation on sugar. In a 2015 email, it said that a dialogue had to be entered into with Margaret Chan, then director of the WHO. “If not, it will continue to attack us, with significant negative consequences on a global basis. The danger to our business is serious.”
Chemistry is trivialized
In addition to its offices operating around the globe, ILSI also maintains a research foundation and an institute specializing in health and environmental issues. The most important donor to this is the chemical industry. Over the past decade, ILSI has received more than two million dollars from chemical companies. In 2016, it emerged that the UN Committee, which declared glyphosate – the main ingredient in the “roundup” weed killer , as “probably not carcinogenic” to the WHO, was headed by two ILSI officials. One of them was Alan Boobis, the vice-president of ILSI Europe, who worked as a consultant for chemical companies.
In recent years, ILSI has increasingly focused on developing countries. “The main field of activity is in emerging markets,” Laura A. Schmidt, a professor of health policy at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times. “Health infrastructure is not yet so well established and people are less informed about health risks. If companies gain influence, they can determine the policy and the setting of topics around unhealthy products.”