WHO hits out over reports on links with food industry

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: (Published 20 November 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7872
  1. Anne Gulland
  1. 1London

The World Health Organization has attempted to distance itself from the actions of one of its regional offices, which has been found to have taken money from the food industry.

A report by the news agency Reuters last month found that WHO’s regional office the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) was taking money from large multinational food companies.1 The investigation found that PAHO had taken $50 000 (£31 000; €39 000) from Coca-Cola, $150 000 from Nestlé, and $150 000 from Unilever, which owns the Walls ice cream brand.

In a lengthy rebuttal Margaret Chan, WHO’s director general, said that the Reuters report and follow-up articles were “creating misinformation and confusion in the public health arena.”

She said, “These articles are erroneously suggesting that in working to reduce non-communicable diseases . . . the World Health Organization receives funding from the food and beverage industry. The allegations in these articles are wrong.”

Her statement added that WHO may “engage with the private sector on occasion” but that it did not take money from firms that have a direct interest in the outcome of a project they are contributing to.

Chan added that PAHO was a separate legal entity from WHO. She added, “In some areas the two entities may have variations in policy.” She said that food and beverage manufacturers had contributed financially as part of a multi-sector forum involving PAHO to deal with non-communicable diseases.

PAHO did not deny that it took money from big food companies, and a spokesman told the news agency that “it was a new way of doing business.”

However, in a statement released after the Reuters report came out, PAHO said that it strongly “disagrees with the allegation . . . that the food and beverage industry advises our policy making.”

It added that in 2011 PAHO invited a range of partners, including private sector companies, to take part in the Pan American Forum for Action on NCDs (non-communicable diseases).

“The goal is to work together to raise awareness, promote new and innovative initiatives, and share best practices on the prevention and control of NCDs, as well as in health promotion and behavioural changes,” said the statement. It said that “just 1% of PAHO’s $30m investment in the fight against NCDs comes from the private sector.”

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University in London, said that it was “extremely short sighted and politically naive” of PAHO to enter into any kind of financial relation with big food companies. A report that Lang coauthored in 2006 said that Coca-Cola’s annual marketing budget alone was as big as WHO’s entire budget for two years.2

He said, “WHO is financially squeezed, and for years there has been a drip drip pressure on them to get into bed with the big food companies. PAHO has been the first to break ranks.”

He added that PAHO had done some good work on tackling obesity. “There’s a tension within PAHO between the interests of North America and those of South America,” he said. “North America is the home of ‘big food,’ the sugary, overconsuming, unsustainable diet. South America is trying to come out of decades of extreme poverty.”


Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e7872