Beverage Industry Finds Friend Inside U.S. Health Agency

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This article was first published by Huffington Post

By Carey Gillam 

It’s been a rough year for Big Soda, sellers of those sugary soft drinks that kids (and adults) love to chug.

A June 16 decision by city leaders in Philadelphia to impose a “soda tax” as a means to discourage consumption of beverages seen as unhealthy is only the latest in a string of bad news for companies like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which have seen soft drink sales steadily declining. Nervous investors drove shares in those companies lower after the Philadelphia move in recognition of what is but the latest evidence that consumers, lawmakers and health experts are connecting sweetened beverages to a range of health problems, including obesity and type 2 diabetes.

Last year San Francisco passed a law requiring ads for sugary drinks to include warnings about the possible negative health effects associated with the products.

A critical blow came last June when World Health Organization (WHO) Director General Margaret Chan said the marketing of full-sugar soft drinks was a key contributor to rising child obesity around the world, especially in developing countries. WHO published a new sugar guideline in March 2015, and Chan suggested restrictions on sugar-rich beverage consumption.

Mexico already implemented its own soda tax in 2014, and many cities in the U.S. and around the world are currently considering such restrictions or disincentives, like added taxes, while others have already done so. The Mexican soda tax has correlated with a drop in soda purchases, according to research published earlier this year.

It’s no surprise that the beverage industry, which reaps billions of dollars annually from soft drink sales, has been fearing – and fighting against – this shifting sentiment.

But what is surprising is one of the places where the beverage industry has sought, and apparently garnered, some help —- from a top official with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, whose mission in part is to prevent obesity, diabetes, and other health problems.

Email communications obtained by U.S. Right to Know through state Freedom of Information requests detail how a leading beverage and food industry advocate last year was able to ask for and input and guidance from Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of CDC’s Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, on how to address World Health Organization actions that were hurting the beverage industry.

Bowman leads a CDC division charged with providing “public health leadership” and works with states to promote research and grants to prevent and manage risk factors that include obesity, diabetes, heart disease and stroke. 

But the emails between Bowman and Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola scientific and regulatory affairs leader and founder of the industry-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), show that Bowman also appeared happy to help the beverage industry cultivate political sway with the World Health Organization.

Emails from 2015 detail how Malaspina, representing the interests of Coca-Cola and the food industry, reached out to Bowman to complain that the World Health Organization was giving a cold shoulder to the chemical and food industry-funded group known as ILSI, which Malaspina founded in 1978. The email strings include reports of concerns about Coca-Cola’s new Coca-Cola Life, sweetened with stevia, and criticisms that it still contained more sugar than daily limit recommended by WHO.

The emails include reference to the WHO’s call for more regulation on sugary soft drinks, saying they were contributing to rising obesity rates among children, and complain about Chan’s comments.

“Any ideas how we can have a conversation with WHO?” Malaspina writes in a June 26, 2015 email to Bowman. He forwards her an email string that includes top executives from Coca-Cola and ILSI and expresses worry about negative reports about products with high sugar content, and sugary soda tax plans in Europe. In the email string, Malaspina says the WHO actions can have “significant negative consequences on a global basis.”

“The threat to our business is serious,” Malaspina writes in the email chain he sends to Bowman. On the email chain are Coca-Cola Chief Public Affairs and Communications Officer Clyde Tuggle as well as Coca-Cola’s Chief Technical Officer Ed Hays.

Directly he tells Bowman that officials at WHO “do not want to work with industry.” And says: “Something must be done.”

Bowman replies that someone with Gates or “Bloomberg people” may have close connections that could open a door at WHO. She also suggests he try someone at PEPFAR program, a U.S. government-backed program that makes HIV/AIDS drugs available through the sub-Saharan Africa. She tells him that “WHO is key to the network.” She writes that she “will be in touch about getting together.”

In a subsequent June 27, 2015 email, Malaspina thanks her for the “very good leads” and says “we would want WHO to start working with ILSI again… and for WHO to not only consider sugary foods as the only cause of obesity but to consider also the life style changes that have been occurring throughout the Universe.” He then suggests he and Bowman meet for dinner soon.

The fact that a high-level U.S. health official is communicating in this way with a beverage industry leader appears improper, according to Marion Nestle, author of the book “Soda Politics” and a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University.

“These emails suggest that ILSI, Coca-Cola, and researchers funded by Coca-Cola have an ‘in’ with a prominent CDC official,” Nestle said. “The official appears to be interested in helping these groups organize opposition to “eat less sugar” and “disclose industry funding” recommendations. The invitation to dinner suggests a cozy relationship… This appearance of conflict of interest is precisely why policies for engagement with industry are needed for federal officials.”

But CDC spokeswoman Kathy Harben said the emails do not necessarily represent a conflict or problem.

“It is not unusual for CDC to be in touch with people on all sides of an issue.” Harben said.

Robert Lustig, Professor of Pediatrics in the Division of Endocrinology at the University of California, San Francisco, said ILSI is a known “front group for the food industry.” Lustig said he finds it “interesting” that the CDC has yet to take a stance on limiting sugar consumption, despite the WHO concerns about links to disease. Lustig directs UCSF’s WATCH program (Weight Assessment for Teen and Child Health), and is co-founder of the non-profit Institute for Responsible Nutrition.

Neither Bowman nor Malaspina responded to requests for comment.

The email exchanges show that Bowman did more than simply respond to questions from Malaspina. She also initiated emails and forwarded information she received from other organizations. Many of Bowman’s emails with Malaspina were received and sent through her personal email account, though in at least one of the communications, Bowman forwarded information from her CDC email address to her personal email account before sharing it with Malaspina.

In a February 2015 email from Bowman to Malaspina she shared an email she had received from a USDA official with the subject line “FOR YOUR REVIEW: Draft Principles from Dec 8 Public Private Partnerships Meeting.” The email from David Klurfeld, national program leader for human nutrition at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, quoted an article from the BMJ medical journal stressing a need for public/private partnerships, and included a quote about a “strong tide of sanctimony in British public health.” Bowman tells Malaspina: “This may be of interest. Check out the BMJ correspondence especially.”

In a March 18, 2015 email from Bowman to Malaspina she forwarded an email regarding the new policy brief to curb global sugar consumption she received from the World Cancer Research Fund International. Malaspina then shared the communications with Coca-Cola officials and others.

In a separate March 2015 email, Bowman sent Malaspina some CDC summaries of reports and says she would appreciate his “thoughts and comments.”

Bowman, who holds a PhD in human nutrition and nutritional biology, has worked at the CDC since 1992, and has held several senior leadership positions there. She was appointed director of the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention in the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion at CDC in February 2013.

Malaspina has also had a long career in his field of expertise. The veteran Coca-Cola executive founded ILSI in 1978 with help from Coca-Cola, Pepsi and other food industry players and ran it until 1991. ILSI has had a long and checkered relationship with the World Health Organization, working at one time closely with its Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and with WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer and the International Programme on Chemical Safety.

But a report by a consultant to WHO found that ILSI was infiltrating WHO and FAO with scientists, money and research to garner favor for industry products and strategies. ILSI was also accused of  attempting to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts on behalf of the tobacco industry.

WHO eventually distanced itself from ILSI. But questions about ILSI influence erupted again this spring when scientists affiliated with ILSI participated in an evaluation of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, issuing a decision favorable to Monsanto Co. and the pesticide industry.

Carey Gillam is a veteran journalist and research director for U.S. Right to Know, a non-profit consumer education group. Follow her on Twitter @CareyGillam

Conflict of Interest Concerns Cloud Glyphosate Review

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By Carey Gillam

It’s been a little more than a year since the World Health Organization’s (WHO) cancer research experts upended the agrichemical industry’s favorite child. The group, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) declared the globe’s most widely used herbicide – glyphosate – to be a probable human carcinogen.

Since then, Monsanto Co., which draws roughly a third of its $15 billion in annual revenues from its Roundup branded glyphosate-based herbicide products, (and much of the rest from glyphosate-tolerant crop technology) has been on a mission to invalidate the IARC finding. Through an army of foot soldiers that include industry executives, public relation professionals and public university scientists, the company has called for a rebuke of IARC’s work on glyphosate.

How successful those efforts will or will not be is still an open question. But some answers are expected following a meeting being held this week in Geneva, Switzerland. An “international expert scientific group” known as JMPR is reviewing IARC’s work on glyphosate, and the results are expected to offer regulators around the world a guide for how to view glyphosate.

The group, officially known as the Joint FAO-WHO Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), is administered jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and WHO. JMPR meets regularly to review residues and analytical aspects of pesticides, to estimate maximum residue levels, and to review toxicological data and estimate acceptable daily intakes (ADIs) for humans.

After this week’s meeting, set to run from May 9-13, JMPR is expected to issue a series of recommendations that will then go to the FAO/WHO Codex Alimentarius Commission. The Codex Alimentarius was established by FAO and the World Health Organization develops harmonized international food standards as a means to protect consumer health and promote fair practices in food trade.

The meeting comes as both European and U.S. regulators are wrestling with their own assessments and how to react to the IARC classification. It also comes as Monsanto looks for backing for its claims of glyphosate safety.

Glyphosate is not just a lynchpin for sales of the company’s herbicides but also for its genetically modified seeds designed to tolerate being sprayed with glyphosate. The company also is currently defending itself against several lawsuits in which farmworkers and others allege they contracted cancer linked to glyphosate and that Monsanto knew of, but hid, the risks. And, a rebuke of IARC’s glyphosate classification could help the company in its lawsuit against the state of California, which aims to stop the state from following the IARC classification with a similar designation.

Depending on the result of the JMPR, the Codex will decide on any actions necessary regarding glyphosate, said WHO spokesperson Tarik Jasarevic.

“It is the JMPR’s function to conduct risk assessment for agricultural use and assessing the health risks to consumers from residues found in food,” said Jasarevic

The outcome of the JMPR meeting is being watched closely by a number of environmental and consumer groups that want to see new safety standards for glyphosate. And not without some worry. The coalition, which includes the Natural Resources Defense Council and Friends of the Earth, has expressed concern about apparent conflicts of interest on the expert advisory panel. Some individuals appear to have financial and professional ties to Monsanto and the chemical industry, according to the coalition.

The coalition specifically cited concerns with member ties to the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is funded by Monsanto and other chemical, food and drug companies. The Institute’s board of trustees includes executives from Monsanto, Syngenta, DuPont, Nestle and others, while its list of member and supporting companies includes those and many more global food and chemical concerns.

Internal ILSI documents, obtained by a state public records request, suggest that ILSI has been generously funded by the agrichemical industry. One document that appears to be ILSI’s 2012 major donor list shows total contributions of $2.4 million, with more than $500,000 each from CropLife International and from Monsanto.

“We have significant concerns that the committee will be unduly influenced by the overall pesticide industry and particularly Monsanto- the largest producer of glyphosate in the world,” the coalition told WHO in a letter last year.

One such JMPR expert is Alan Boobis, professor of biochemical pharmacology and director of the toxicology unit in the faculty of medicine at Imperial College London. He is a member and a past chairman of the board of trustees of ILSI, vice-president of ILSI Europe and chair of ILSI.

Another member is Angelo Moretto, Director of the International Centre for Pesticides and Health Risks Prevention at “Luigi Sacco” Hospital of the ASST Fatebenefratelli Sacco, in Milan, Italy. The coalition said that Moretto has been involved in various projects with ILSI and has served as a member of the steering team for an ILSI project on risks of chemical exposures financed by agrichemical companies that included Monsanto.

Another is Aldert Piersma, a senior scientist at the National Institute for Public Health and the Environment in the Netherlands and an advisor to projects of ILSI’s Health and Environmental Sciences Institute.

In all the JMPR list of experts totals 18. Jasarevic said that the roster of experts are chosen from a group of individuals who expressed interest in being involved, and all are “independent and are selected based on their scientific excellence, as well as on their experience in the field of pesticide risk assessment.”

Aaron Blair, a scientist emeritus at the National Cancer Institute and the chairman of the IARC group that made the glyphosate classification, has defended IARC’s work as based on a thorough scientific review. He said he had no concerns to discuss regarding the  JMPR review of IARC’s work.

“I am sure the evaluation by the joint FAO/WHO group will make the reasons for their evaluation clear, which is what is critical for the press and public,” he said.

The world is waiting.