Food industry lobby group ILSI rebrands (again) to duck critical news coverage

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One of the world’s most powerful food industry lobby groups is rebranding itself to better serve its food industry funders. This comes after years of academic articles – some of them based on documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know – and adverse coverage in major news outlets made it harder for the group to do stealth lobbying and public relations work for food companies. 

The International Life Sciences Institute, founded in 1978 by a Coca-Cola executive, is changing its name. It will now call itself just by its acronym, ILSI. The global federation of groups also unveiled a new logo and updated website on May 23, and announced a renewed focus on “scientific integrity.” 

“I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,” said Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “ILSI has always claimed to be independently science-based, but if there were ever any doubts, we now know beyond question that ILSI is a classic food industry front-group.” 

“Many investigators have exposed ILSI’s behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts against public health measures that might reduce food product sales,” she said. 

See the evidence, ILSI is a food industry lobby group.

‘Shadowy lobby group’

In an FAQ posted on their website, ILSI claims it “does not lobby or express explicitly positions on legislation” and that its mandatory policy “expressly forbids lobby activities of any kind.” But, as the New York Times reported in 2019, ILSI is a “shadowy lobby group” that “shapes food policies around the world,” often in favor of its corporate funders. The Times also described ILSI as “the most powerful food industry group you’ve never heard of.” 

In China, for example, obesity rates have nearly doubled in the past two decades as junk food has become widely available. Rather than rein in the junk food companies, China’s policies focus on a theme Coca-Cola has long pushed: encouraging people to exercise more. And ILSI was the “main organization” shaping China’s policy, according to research by Harvard Professor Susan Greenhalgh, an anthropologist who specializes in China. 

“the most important science making entity for the processed food industry”

“Coke succeeded in redirecting China’s obesity science and policy to emphasize physical activity,” Greenhalgh reported in a 2021 paper. Working through ILSI, a supposedly neutral group, “Coca-Cola influenced China’s science making and policy making during every phase in the policy process, from framing the issues to drafting official policy.” 

As Greenhalgh explained to the Corporate Crime Reporter, ILSI brings together academic, industry and government scientists who say they “provide science that improves human health and safeguards the environment. That’s the public promise of ILSI. But beneath that promise there is a very complicated operation that in effect allows ILSI to be the most important science making entity for the processed food industry.” 

ILSI documents expose lobbying tactics

Documents obtained by U.S. Right to Know, described in a series of academic papers co-authored by USRTK’s Gary Ruskin, offer further evidence that ILSI influences research and policy for its food industry funders, promotes advocacy-led studies, and deploys other stealth tactics to shape scientific evidence and public opinion about issues important to junk food and soda companies. 

The documents also reveal that “scientific integrity” – the theme of ILSI’s new branding – is an area in which ILSI’s anti-public-health work has been most recently successful, according to a paper published last year. That is also a theme that is directly important to Coca-Cola.

Despite the rebranding, ILSI remains a food industry front-group that is designed to promote the interests of the food industry,” said Gary Sacks, an associate professor and fellow at the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, whose research focuses on policies for preventing obesity.

And despite ILSI’s claim to have a new focus on ‘integrity,’ ILSI cannot escape the inherent conflict of interest at the heart of their operating model. In particular, the objectives of companies that seek to profit from the sale of unhealthy foods are inherently at odds with public health objectives,” he said. 

Read the academic papers about ILSI co-authored by USRTK.

Pattern of rebranding 

In the view of Mélissa Mialon, an influential food industry scholar and research assistant professor at Trinity College Dublin, the ILSI rebrand is an attempt “to restore their reputation and move away from that criticism they’re facing in recent years.” But even scarier, she said, “is that they’re also creating new organizations like the IAFNS, where it will be even more complicated to trace the links with corporations – even if these are entirely founded by Big Food etc.” 

Announced in 2021, the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) was formerly known as ILSI North America (ILSI NA). That group describes itself as “a non-profit organization that catalyzes science for the benefit of public health.”

In 2020, the ILSI Research Foundation (ILSI RF) renamed itself the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute, which describes itself as a ”non-profit organization that advances and disseminates science to enable safe and sustainable agri-food systems.” That rebrand took place shortly after the consumer watchdog group Corporate Accountability released a report describing how the world’s most powerful food and beverage companies use ILSI to “cripple progress on nutrition policy across the globe.”  

The rebranding of ILSI global, and its claims to stand for scientific integrity, “mean nothing unless ILSI walks its talk,” said Professor Nestle. “I will be watching what ILSI does with great interest and, alas, a great deal of skepticism.”

Formerly known as ILSI North America, IAFNS says in its FAQ that it left ILSI “to create a brand that better communicates the work we do and our focus on public health and evidence-based science.”