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
By Henry Peters
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
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.
WITH SUGAR ON TOP
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
THE WHO RESPONDS
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
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