Conflict of Interest: Why Is a Major Health Organization Taking Money From Coca-Cola and Nestlé?

A division of the World Health Organization aims to fight obesity—but does funding from food giants compromise their mission?

Mexico has the world's highest rate of overweight adults and obese children, and yet the Pan American Health Organization there is taking money from the junk food industry. (Photo: Alfredo Estrella/Getty Images)
Steve Holt is a regular contributor to TakePart. He writes about food for Edible Boston, Boston Magazine, The Boston Globe, and other publications.

Can a global public health agency receive donations from industrial food companies and still be trusted to create impartial policies and strategies for addressing obesity?

That’s the question at the center of a debate over an investigative report from Reuters last week that claimed the Pan American Health Organization (a regional division of the World Health Organization) is not only relying on input from the food and beverage industry (including Coca-Cola and Nestlé) to form health policy, but it’s taken hundreds of thousands of dollars from the industry.

The PAHO has denied that any corporation is at the policy-making table, only saying, “the PAHO adheres to a comprehensive approach to fight [non-communicable diseases], which includes governments, civil society, academia, international organizations, and private sector.”

Reuters reported that despite the fact that the acceptance of industry funding violates WHO’s worldwide policies, its office in Mexico began accepting donations from private food and beverage corporations in February. It found that the world’s two largest food and beverage companies, Nestlé and Coca-Cola, had given $150,000 and $50,000, respectively. British-Dutch conglomerate Unilever, which operates Ben & Jerry’s and Popsicles, added $150,000. For Dr. Gary Bennett, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Global Health at Duke University, companies have a part to play in addressing obesity, and yet the PAHO erred in its lack of transparency.

“There is a role for industry at a [public health] table,” he says. “However, it’s not clear to me that that should be a table that’s behind closed doors, and I’m not sure industry should be having conversations with the WHO when there’s no transparency there.”

He adds that in Mexico, where diabetes is now the number one killer of adults, “public health considerations are substantial and require focused, serious effort. This kind of thing just gets in the way.”

In a nation whose diabetes and obesity rates are out of control, it’s no surprise that Coca-Cola exudes an unbelievable amount of influence. Mexicans drink more Coca-Cola than any other beverage, and former president Vincente Fox was the president of Coca-Cola Mexico before entering politics. Reuters reports that at a meeting of the WHO’s nutrition committee last November in Germany, representatives from Coca-Cola and Kellogg represented the country, while every other nation present had sent government officials.

“Industry is buzzing all around,” Boyd Swinburn, an Australian professor and longtime member of WHO’s nutrition advisory committees, told Reuters. “Even in things like nutrition guidelines, they’re usually in the room at the policymaking table or buzzing around it and putting all sort of pressure on, bringing their huge conflicts of interest and their huge resources to it—and we're wondering why we don't get much public interest policy coming out.”

And yet, Coca-Cola has repeatedly denied that its products play any part in contributing to obesity.

There is a growing belief that in the global war on obesity, the winners almost always seem to be the ones with the fattest wallets. In August, Reuters alleged that the White House “went soft on childhood obesity” as a result of enormous lobbying spending by food and beverage companies. Through analyzing lobbying records and conducting dozens of interviews, Reuters found that the industries more than doubled their spending in Washington during the past three years (which have been marked by First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move!” campaign against childhood obesity) and have “largely dominated policymaking—pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation's diet.”

Policies that restrict the food and beverage industry—either at the federal, state or municipal level—have not been popular among Americans. But Bennett says that because evidence that the food industry is contributing to our obesity epidemic is “completely conclusive,” policies that restrict the actions of companies needs to be back on the table.

“Those policies are going to have a negative impact on a whole range of industries,” he says. “The food industry is going to be not happy about having, but it’s going to be necessary for us to do something about the obesity epidemic.”

But one has to wonder: In a world where the industry pays off the ones who make the policies, when can we expect meaningful change to happen?

Does it bother you that Coca-Cola and Nestlé are paying the Pan American Health Organization, which addresses global obesity?

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