FEBRUARY 15, 2004

The sugar daddy bites back

WHO calls for ban on junk-food ads aimed at kids. In
retaliation, the US sugar lobby urges their gov't to suspend funding

In a leaked confidential letter to the Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO), Lee Jong-Wook, the US government has rejected decades of nutritional research and denied that there is any evidence of a link between junk food and obesity. The letter, from William R Steiger, special assistant at the Department of Health and Human Services and godson to George Bush Sr, is the United States' official response to an April 2003 report by the WHO and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO). That report, entitled "Diet, Nutrition, and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases," argues that governments should take steps to limit children's exposure to junk-food advertising, and says that added sugar should comprise no more than 10% of a healthy diet.

The report was released last spring, prompting American food manufacturers' groups to begin frantic lobbying in Washington. The Sugar Association wrote to Gro Harlem Brundtland, then WHO director-general, threatening to "exercise every avenue available to expose the dubious nature" of the report. Congressmen recruited by the food industry urged the Secretary of Health, Tommy Thompson, to cut off the $406 million annual US contribution to the WHO.

Groups like the National Soft Drink Association -- based in Washington -- argue that 25% added sugar in the diet is not harmful. This view is backed by the prestigious-sounding International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). But the ILSI is actually a joint creation of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, General Foods, Proctor and Gamble, and Kraft.

Twenty-three countries have produced national reports that recommend limits of approximately 10%. Professor Marion Nestle, chair of the department of food and nutrition studies at New York University, says US domestic guidelines are no different. "If you do the sums in the Department of Agriculture Food Guide Pyramid, you'll find it recommends 7-12% free sugars," she says. "But they're afraid to mention actual figures because of the industry, which is being very aggressive at the moment."

The leaked letter says the WHO/FAO report fails to meet the standards of the US Data Quality Act, lacks external peer review and mixes science and policymaking in the same exercise. "Whenever you hear the government or the industry talking about scientific rigour," says Professor Nestle, "it's code for self-interest. It reminds me of the obfuscating tactics of the tobacco industry."

Mr Steiger's letter questions the scientific basis for "the linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity and diabetes." He adds: "There is an unsubstantiated focus on 'good' and 'bad' foods and a conclusion that specific foods are linked to non-communicable diseases and obesity... The assertion that heavy marketing of energy-dense foods or fast-food outlets increases the risk of obesity is supported by almost no data." The letter also criticises "the identification of adverse economic status, especially in women, as a causative factor in obesity," despite research that has consistently shown poor Americans are fatter than rich ones.

"Most of the WHO/FAO report is actually rather banal," says Professor Nestle. "The science is no different from dozens of previous reports by national governments. What annoys the industry is that it also contains concrete recommendations for actually doing something about the problem." Indeed, Mr Steiger's letter complains that "scientists should review and evaluate the available science without regard to policy decisions."

The letter provoked a robust response from Professor Kaare Norum, senior scientist of the WHO's obesity campaign. In a letter to US Health Secretary Tommy Thompson, he accused the US government of making the health of millions of young Americans "a hostage to fortune" as a result of its links to business, particularly the sugar lobby.

Since 1990, successive US governments have blocked WHO calls for action, claims Professor Norum of the Department of Medicine at Oslo University. "Obesity rates have risen so that now one in three Americans bears the burden of the very high health risks associated with this condition, with the poorest and most vulnerable worst affected," he says. "Obesity rates among American children have risen by 50%."

The sugar magnates' grip on the US government is best exemplified by the Fanjul brothers, of giant sugar firm Florida Crystals Corporation. Jose 'Pepe' Fanjul, president of the company, is one of Bush's top fundraisers and corporate donors. His brother Alfy manages Democratic Party connections. Bill Clinton famously took a phone call from Alfy Fanjul even while entertaining intern Monica Lewinsky.

Another lobbying organisation, the Grocery Manufacturers of America, was allowed to send representatives in the US delegation that Health Secretary Tommy Thompson brought to Geneva last week. Mr Thompson was attending a WHO Executive Board meeting to discuss the proposed WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

Insiders say the WHO executive board split on the issue, with several sugar-producing nations lining up behind the United States. A source close to the negotiations said India, Brazil, Mauritius, Colombia, the Philippines, the Maldives and Ghana backed the US stance. Russia, Egypt, the Czech Republic and Lebanon were ambiguous or non-committal, while Cuba and Venezuela said the focus should be on undernutrition, not obesity. Gambia suggested addressing the issue of conflict of interest, while Gabon complained of pressure from the industry. Canada, Britain, Ireland (representing the EU), Spain, China, France, Iceland, Myanmar, New Zealand and South Africa favoured adopting the Global Strategy as it stands.

The US and its allies postponed the final confrontation on the issue, instead persuading the meeting to prolong until February 29 the period in which member states can raise objections to the existing plan. A revised plan will be presented to the full World Health Assembly in May.

WHO report is at: http://www.who.int/hpr/NPH/docs/who_fao_expert_report.pdf Leaked letter is at: http://www.commercialalert.org/bushadmincomment.pdf



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