Opinion: Coca-Cola, Junk Food Companies Influencing Public Health Policies in India
By Amit Srivastava
India Resource Center
February 6, 2019

The Coca-Cola company has undermined China’s public health policies on obesity through a non-profit group that networked with nutrition scientists to nudge “government policy into alignment with the company’s corporate interests”, according to Harvard University professor Susan Greenhalgh.

The alarming findings were published in The BMJ and the Journal of Public Health Policy last month.

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), is a non-profit organization founded by Alex Malaspina, former senior vice president at Coca-Cola, and until December 31, 2015, led by Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer.

The Harvard study found that Coca-Cola and other companies worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence China’s public health policies, including a “shift aligned with Coca-Cola’s message that it is activity, not diet, that matters—a claim few public health scholars accept.”

The Coca-Cola company has been on the defensive as a growing number of studies fault increasing sugar consumption as the major contributor to the obesity epidemic in developed countries such as the US and UK, and also on the rise in emerging economies such as China, India, Mexico and South Africa.

One of the company’s strategy has been to counter these studies by downplaying the role of diet and calorie intake and placing an increased emphasis on physical activity, or exercise, as the panacea to obesity.

In the United States, another non-profit, the Global Energy Balance Network (GEBM), announced that it was disbanding in 2015 after it came under severe pressure from public health professionals and the media for being a front organization for Coca-Cola. Similar to ILSI, the Global Energy Balance Network received significant funding from Coca-Cola, including $1.5 million to start the network, and interfaced directly with Ms. Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer, to negate the relationship between soft drinks and obesity.

Although Coca-Cola, in typical fashion, denied any such direct relationship with the Global Energy Balance Network, the Associated Press released a set of emails confirming that GEBM was a front organization for Coca-Cola, leading to Ms. Applebaum’s departure from Coca-Cola in late 2015 and the disbandment of the network.

Alarmingly, ILSI has a chapter in India as well, and counts Coca-Cola India’s Director of Regulatory Affairs as its Treasurer, and representatives from Nestle and Ajinomoto among its board of directors.

Not surprisingly, ILSI has organized conferences in India downplaying the role of sugar and diet, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution to obesity.

What is particularly disturbing has been the central involvement of Indian government officials – who are meant to regulate these junk food companies – in the ILSI organization itself.

Among the Board members of ILSI–India are Dr. Debabrata Kanungo, who is on the Scientific Panel on Pesticides Residues at the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), a government of India agency tasked with ensuring food safety and setting safety standards for the entire country. Dr. Kanungo is also on FSSAI’s Scientific Panel on Food additives, Flavourings, Processing aids and Materials in contact with food.

Another ILSI-India Board member, Dr. B Sesikeran, is also a member of FSSAI’s Scientific Panel on Functional foods, Nutraceuticals, Dietetic Products and Other similar products.

Sesikeran also is listed as being on the Board of Trustees of the global ILSI based in Washington, DC and his affiliation is listed as National Institute of Nutrition, which is a government of India institution under the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. He serves on the board of ILSI along with representatives of PepsiCo, Danone, Ajinomoto, Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont, and others. He is the only board member listed with a government affiliation.

Similar to China where ILSI worked with nutrition scientists to toe the corporate line, the organization has been seemingly successful in controlling key public health policy areas in India.

In April 2018, FSSAI released the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations 2018, which included a rule that the label on packaged food should state in the color RED if the product contained high levels of fat, sugar or salt (generally considered as junk food).

The draft rules were put on hold after some stakeholders raised concerns, and the FSSAI has constituted a 3-member committee to “look into the issue of labelling once again.”

The 3-member expert committee is headed by B. Sesikeran, board member at both ILSI global and ILSI-India.

Individuals who play a significant part in protecting and regulating India’s food safety should not be allowed to also occupy central roles with ILSI, a front organization for companies that essentially peddle junk food and use front organizations to muddle science. Such dual roles constitute a serious conflict of interest, and if left unattended, can have the very real consequence of the food industry defining India’s policies on nutrition, food safety and obesity – as has been the case in China.

Companies like Coca-Cola are slick operators with deep pockets that have no hesitation in paying to have their way. In 2006, when Coca-Cola was under pressure for causing water shortages in India, it hired a lobbyist, Deepak Talwar, whose “lobbying approach was to ensure, among other things, that every government or private study accusing the company of environmental harm was challenged by another study”, according to a report in the New York Times.

The Indian government should exercise caution and act immediately cut such close linkages between the food industry – whose sole purpose is to increase shareholder profits by selling more products, however unhealthy or unsafe – and the government regulators, whose job is to regulate the food industry.

Both B. Sesikeran and Debabrata Kanungo should be relieved of their duties with the FSSAI – India’s primary food regulatory institution – and replaced with independent experts with no conflicts of interest between private food corporations and public health.

Amit Srivastava works with Berkeley, California based India Resource Center on corporate accountability issues.

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