Emails show how the food industry uses ‘science’ to push soda

A conversation between two former Coke executives revealed tricks of the trade. — Reuters pic
A conversation between two former Coke executives revealed tricks of the trade. — Reuters pic

WASHINGTON, Sept 13 — There are few federal food policies as contentious as the US Dietary Guidelines, developed every five years after a report by the independent US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. The guidelines not only inform individual consumers about what’s healthy and what isn’t but are also used to develop approaches to everything from food labelling regulations to school lunch menus and food stamp benefits.

In other words, there’s a lot of money at stake.

So it’s not surprising that following the 2015 committee report, which had recommended that Americans reduce their consumption of red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened foods and beverages, the food and beverage industry scrambled to respond.

But newly released emails suggest a broader strategy for shaping policy. The chain, which began with a mass email from the International Food Information Council Foundation (IFIC), an industry-funded group, included a conversation between two former executives of Coca-Cola Co and of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), also an industry-funded group.

Industry efforts to influence policy are nothing new, and efforts to shape the dietary guidelines have long been part of them. In addition, evidence of attempts to sway the scientific debate have surfaced recently.

These emails lay out “what appears to be the food industry’s roadmap for dealing with scientific challenges,” said Gary Ruskin, co-founder and co-director of US Right to Know, a non-profit group that advocates transparency in the industry and that obtained the email chain through a request under a state open records act. “I’ve never seen such a document.”

US Right to Know gets most of its funding from the Organic Consumers Association. Ruskin is an author of a report on the significance of the emails published today in the journal Critical Public Health.

The emails “reveal deliberate use of [the tobacco industry’s] ‘playbook’ tactics: Cast doubt on the science, influence reporters, use front groups (e.g., ILSI and IFIC) to undermine concerns about the harmful effects of sugary drinks and head off dietary guidelines raising such concerns, and regulation,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University and author of Food Politics and Soda Politics, about the way those industries influence the American diet and, increasingly, the world’s. 

They called for “the generation of credible consensus science on the issues hitting the industry — obesity and causative factors, sugar, sweetener safety “

Both IFIC and ILSI describe their missions as supporting scientifically sound policies on food. Both are funded by companies in the food, beverage, and agriculture industries, including Coke. In separate emailed statements, both said they weren’t lobbyists.

Coca-Cola said in an email that it had taken multiple steps to “be a more helpful and effective partner in efforts to address obesity,” including semi-annual disclosures of its health-related research.

On February 20, 2015, the day after the release of the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee’s report, IFIC sent an email to its directors, trustees, and staff describing its media outreach call from the morning. The conversation with more than 40 journalists, the email said, included topics like the “conflicting” science behind the recommendation to limit red meat and “insufficient evidence” behind recommendations to reduce added sugar. The group had more than 20 experts who could speak to those “hot-button” issues in the news media, the email said.

The email was then forwarded outside of the organisation to Alex Malaspina, a former Coca-Cola executive and the founding president of ILSI. Malaspina, in turn, forwarded it to two current Coke executives, adding that “IFIC is coming through for our industry.” No response from the current executives is included in the released email chain. Malaspina didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The next morning, in an email to Malaspina, Michael Ernest Knowles, a former vice president of Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at Coca-Cola and former president of ILSI, went further than media outreach, calling for “the generation of credible consensus science on the issues hitting the industry — obesity and causative factors, sugar, low/no calories sweetener safety — in particular we have to use external organisations in addition to any work we directly commission.” Knowles didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In other words, the industry should not only fund its own studies, a common practice, but also get outside organisations to do that work. The tactic may be working. An ILSI-sponsored review recently appeared in The Annals of Internal Medicine concluding that “guidelines on dietary sugar do not meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations and are based on low-quality evidence.”

These emails lay out “what appears to be the food industry’s roadmap for dealing with scientific challenges.”

Knowles also advised leveraging positions within scientific societies to promote this work.

“We all belong to one [or] more of these and we should have leadership roles in the key ones and push for individual issues to be addressed by public conferences/workshops,” he wrote to Malaspina. Those within the food industry should use contacts at medical associations and “encourage them to address public health matters and ‘suggest’ appropriate topics.” He listed his own membership in the Society of Apothecaries of London as an example of how to pursue a possible venue. The Society didn’t respond to a request for comment.

IFIC said in its statement that it is “governed by a Board of Trustees whose members primarily represent universities, the public sector and government agencies” and that “we do not represent companies, products or brands; we are nonpartisan and non-political; and we do not lobby or advocate for regulations.”

“ILSI believes experts from all sectors of society can and should work together on science and related health issues,” Michael B. Shirreffs, director of communications for ILSI, said in an email. “ILSI does not lobby or act on behalf of any business interest, but we do advocate the use of science to make informed decisions.”

That didn’t stop Knowles from recommending efforts to influence government policy.

“This is longer term of course but we should look ahead and [propose] work in those which could become ‘issues,’” he wrote to Malaspina. He mentioned the “EU Commission,” or the European Commission, which regulates nutrition and health claims on food labels, and the potential for its collaboration with the US “We should encourage this through ILSI and our academic contacts,” he wrote.

The final guidelines received mixed reviews from health advocates like NYU’s Nestle and Walter Willet, chair of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard University. The criticism centred on the contentious issues of meat and sugar. Instead of the direct advice about consuming less red and processed meat and sugar-sweetened beverages, the final version, as in earlier years, focused on cutting back on things like saturated fat and added sugar. “They obfuscate,” Nestle said.

“The industry did well,” Ruskin said of the final 2015 guidelines. But, pointing to the drive toward cleaner labels and healthier foods, he added, “In the realm of public perception, the consumer advocates are winning.” — Bloomberg

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