Posted by: davidjolson | 05/20/2011

Is anyone checking up on the food and beverage industry?

GENEVA — It was the day before the opening of the World Health Assembly, and I was talking to a Swiss NGO friend of mine in an Old Town café here about the new focus on non-communicable diseases (NCDs) at the World Health Organization (WHO) and the considerable involvement of the food and beverage industry in that effort, and at the Assembly.

The food and beverage companies are saying all the right things about their desire to reduce sugar, salt and fat content, she said, and to encourage healthy lifestyles among their customers. But who is checking up on them, to ensure that their actions match their words?

Apparently, my friend was not the only skeptic. Dow Jones Newswire reported this week that Corporate Accountability International, which represents 100 organizations from 24 countries, had written a letter to WHO Director-General Margaret Chan, “to raise concerns that the U.N.’s links to companies such as Nestle SA and Coca Cola are leading to conflicts of interest and compromising the international body’s independence.”

This is a serious charge given that the WHO has just come through a crisis in which it was accused of fabricating the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic in order to benefit the pharmaceutical industry. In her opening speech to the Assembly on Monday, Dr. Chan announced that a report of the Review Committee, set up to investigate these matters, totally exonerated WHO.

With that backdrop, it was with great interest that I attended a small breakfast on Tuesday organized by the International Food & Beverage Alliance, made up of the 10 largest food and beverage companies in the world (Coca-Cola, Ferrero, General Mills, Grupo Bimbo, Kellogg, Kraft, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever). The invitation said that the breakfast would “address the contribution IFBA member companies can make in the prevention of NCDs, including its active commitment and action to align with sound public health and nutrition principles.”

At the breakfast, Donna J. Hrinak, vice president for Global Public Policy & Government Affairs for PepsiCo, reviewed five actions that the IFBA committed to in a May 2008 letter to Dr. Chan in support of WHO’s 2004 Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health:

  1. Reformulate products and develop new products that improve diets;
  2. Provide easily-understandable nutrition information to all consumers;
  3. Extend responsible advertising and marketing to children globally;
  4. Raise awareness on balanced diets and increased levels of physical activity; and
  5. Support public-private partnerships that support the WHO’s Global Strategy.

Just like my friend said, these are all worthy and laudable goals. But is anyone checking up on the IFBA to see if their actions match their rhetoric. Turns out that — at least on number three on advertising to children — someone is.

For the last two years, IFBA has retained Accenture Media Management to monitor its members’ compliance in television, print and internet advertising with their stated marketing and advertising to children policy. Accenture conducted the monitoring exercise as a random sample of the companies’ advertisements between April and June 2010. All the data analyzed was gained from sources independent of the advertisers and their associated media agencies, and Accenture chose the period to be monitored after the advertising had already been purchased. Here are the key findings:

Television: Overall compliance rate is 96%: Accenture reviewed nearly 1 million ad spots promoting products by IFBA members in Chile, China, India, Mexico, Russia, Saudi Arabia, the Philippines and South Africa. More than 37,000 instances of non-compliance were identified. A high proportion of these were spots aired during general viewing times and not on children’s programs.

Print: Overall compliance rate is 100%: Accenture did not find any advertisements among 100 publications in China, India, Mexico, the Philippines and South Africa that targeted children under 12.

Internet: Overall compliance rate is 100%: Accenture did not find any non-compliant advertisements in India, Mexico, Russia and South Africa.

Some may think these results lack credibility because the IFBA itself hired Accenture. But Accenture is a highly-respected research agency that seems to go out of its way to avoid even the possibility of having its data manipulated by IFBA companies.

This strikes me as a good faith attempt to try to monitor one of the five IFBA pledges. I would like to see IFBA expand these efforts to the other four, and to see the concept expanded greatly beyond the IFBA to other companies as well.

The day after the breakfast I ran into a woman from Nestlé I had met at the breakfast waiting in queue to enter the WHO. She said she had been waiting for a half hour to get in, because she does not have the same credentials that NGOs have. With my NGO pass, I was able to walk past her and enter, while she continued to wait. So much for the private sector’s “special access” to WHO.

The New Yorker came out with a wonderfully timed article this week entitled “Snacks for a Fat Planet” (dated May 16, the opening of the Assembly) on PepsiCo’s campaign against obesity. Among other things, it tells the story of Derek Yach, the company’s director of global health policy. Yach made a name of himself at WHO as the architect of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which imposed strict limits on how tobacco companies sell their products. But when he tried to do something more modest with dietary guidelines, he was demoted. A few years later, PepsiCo’s CEO asked him to come to PepsiCo “to do exactly what you were doing at WHO.” And that is what he is doing five years later.

Is WHO too involved with companies? Given the role of companies in so many different aspects of our health — and especially with the NCDs — I say no they are not, they should become more involved. Should we question their motives? Of course (as we should question the motives of others as well), but PepsiCo and others show why we should not assume they are all evil. They deserve a seat at the table.


  1. Thanks for these helpful comments. I think it is more than timely that all parties (NGO, industry, WHO) come more close together on the issue of global health. Having trustworthy reviews of the promised actions of foods industry is one way of achieving the needed trust.

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