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Food and soft drink industry has too much influence over US dietary guidelines, report says

BMJ 2020; 369 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m1666 (Published 24 April 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;369:m1666
  1. Gareth Iacobucci
  1. The BMJ

A powerful, industry funded group is playing an “outsized role” in steering the development of new US dietary guidelines and must have its influence curbed to protect public health, a pressure group has urged.

In a report published this week to coincide with Coca-Cola’s annual meeting of shareholders,1 the campaign group Corporate Accountability noted that over half of people appointed to the US 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee had ties to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), whose funders include Coke and other global corporations.

ILSI was set up by a Coca-Cola executive 40 years ago in the US and operates throughout the world. It is a not-for-profit organisation and says that it does not lobby. Corporate Accountability says in its report, however, that it found evidence of ILSI’s research, governance, and activities being “fraught with conflicts of interest and non-disclosure of industry ties” and that its partnerships with governments were obscuring the public health impacts of soda and junk food.

Key findings

Last year an investigation by The BMJ2 revealed how Coca-Cola had shaped obesity science and public health policy in China in line with its own interests through its funding of the ILSI-China group, which served as a bridge builder between government, academia, and industry.

Other key findings in the latest report include:

  • The chairs and vice chairs of the Pregnancy and Lactation Subcommittee and the Birth to 24 Months Subcommittee are ILSI affiliated scientists with ties to food and beverage transnationals.

  • ILSI’s Nutrition Reviews journal does not always disclose ILSI affiliations and conflicts of interests.

  • Prior research found that nearly 40% of ILSI North America’s 2013-17 publications had no disclosure statement whatsoever despite having ILSI support or funding. Corporate Accountability said that it found further evidence that, even of the publications in the 60% with a disclosure statement, “no conflict of interest” was sometimes declared despite ILSI’s support or funding.

  • ILSI North America’s current board of trustees violates principle 1 of its conflict of interest policy, as over 50% of its board holds an affiliation with the private sector.

  • ILSI offered direct guidance to the Argentine government to update its National Food Composition Database.

  • ILSI India produced a study in “partnership” with government research institutions that systematically disparaged and misrepresented the health effects of traditional foods, instead of focusing primarily on its benefactors’ products such as soda and processed foods and their detrimental impact on public health.

Corporate Accountability urged industry and academic institutions to stop funding the institute—as Mars and Nestlé have already done— including the ILSI Research Foundation and ILSI’s Nutrition Reviews. Companies and academics should also issue a public statement “condemning ILSI’s interference in public health policy and promotion of junk science,” its report recommended.

Governments and their agencies should publicly disclose any interactions with ILSI, prohibit ILSI and other industry groups from nominating participants in official food and nutrition policy processes, and ban anyone with ties to ILSI and other industry groups from participating on dietary guidelines, it added.

It also urged governments to discontinue all partnerships and “involvement” with ILSI (including allowing current government employees to affiliate with the group in any way) and to ban ex-civil servants or public officials from engaging in lobbying activities.

Both the ILSI and Coca-Cola were approached for comment but not had not responded by the time of publication.

References

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