World Health Organization (WHO) has barred a life sciences industry association from participating in setting global standards protecting food and water supplies because its members have a financial stake in the outcome.
At a meeting in Geneva that concluded Saturday, the UN health agency’s Executive Board decided that the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an association of food, chemical and pharmaceutical companies based in Washington, DC, can no longer participate in WHO health standard setting activities.
The WHO Executive Board took this action at the urging of a coalition of environment, health and labor organizations. In late December, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and 17 other organizations, including Physicians for Social Responsibility and the United Steelworkers of America, sent a letter to the WHO Executive Board requesting that it sever its ties to ILSI because the relationship violates the health agency’s own guidelines.
WHO requires that nongovernmental organizations working with the agency “be free from concerns which are primarily of a commercial or profit-making nature.” ILSI does not meet that standard.
“At best, ILSI’s participation in WHO’s decisionmaking process is a blatant conflict of interest,” says Dr. Jennifer Sass, the NRDC scientist who organized the coalition effort. “At worst, its participation has biased WHO policies and jeopardized public health in dozens of countries.”
The industry group still will remain one of the nearly 200 nongovernmental organizations the health agency considers to be working partners.
ILSI represents several hundred corporations in the chemical, processed food, agro-chemical, and pharmaceutical industries. Its membership includes 3M Pharmaceuticals, Aginomoto, Atofina Chemicals, Bayer CropScience, Coca-Cola, ConAgra, Dow Agrosciences/Dow Chemical, DuPont, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, General Mills, Glaxo Smith Kline, Heinz, Hershey Foods, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald’s, Merck & Co., Monsanto, Nestle, Novartis, Nutrasweet, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Proctor and Gamble, Syngenta, and Unilever.
ILSI has branches in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, China, India, Japan, Korea, Mexico, North Africa and the Gulf, South Africa, and Southeast Asia. For a complete list, go to www.ilsi.org.
ILSI says its goal is "to further the understanding of scientific issues relating to nutrition, food safety, toxicology, risk assessment, and the environment by bringing together scientists from academia, government, and industry."
ILSI says it strives to provide "new knowledge" on the role of nutrition in human health, alleviation of worldwide micronutrient deficiency, the safety of food ingredients and additives, and evaluation of water purification methodologies and standards.
But the NRDC says that over the years, ILSI has participated in WHO activities despite its members’ financial interest in the outcome.
ILSI funded a 1998 WHO-UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report on carbohydrates and nutrition that concluded there was no direct link between sugar consumption and obesity or any other lifestyle disease, and suggested there be no upper limit for sugar in the diet.
That conclusion contrasts with common sense, as well as with a 1990 WHO report that found that sugar contributes to the risk of chronic disease and a 2003 WHO-FAO report recommending that people restrict sugar consumption sugar to less than 10 percent of their food energy intake.
ILSI also has tried to avoid stronger curbs on toxic pollutants by "misrepresenting study results and sowing doubt about existing science," the NRDC says.
Between 1983 and 1998, ILSI, whose membership includes tobacco company Altria’s subsidiary Kraft Foods, repeatedly attempted to weaken WHO’s position on the dangers of secondhand smoke.
As documented by Derek Yach, a former senior WHO official, in the November 2001 "American Journal of Public Health," ILSI tried to raise doubts about those risks by funding scientists who claimed there was still uncertainty about the adverse health effects of secondhand smoke.
The relationship between ILSI and the tobacco industry is detailed in a February 2001 report by the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative online at: http://www.who.int/tobacco/media/en/ILSI.pdf.
In the United States, ILSI hosts workshops for industry, academic and federal agency scientists that have been a tool for influencing health and environmental policy decisions.
When the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) assessed a class of chemicals that includes perfluorochemicals used by DuPont to make Teflon, the EPA drafted its policy based on an ILSI review claiming that although the chemicals caused cancer in test rodents, the way they caused cancer was irrelevant to humans, so the class of chemicals could be considered safe. The ILSI review said there was insufficient evidence to determine how the chemicals cause liver tumors in rodents, and the possibility that they could cause liver tumors in humans "could not be ruled out."
An independent scientific panel rejected EPA’s draft policy because it was not supported by the data. Late last year DuPont was hit with the largest administrative fine in EPA history to settle charges that it hid information for more than two decades showing that perfluorochemicals used in the manufacture of its Teflon coated products are a significant threat to human health. Lab animal tests have linked the chemical with liver and testicular cancer, reduced weight of newborns, and immune system suppression.
Last week, the EPA launched a program that encourages companies to reduce perfluorooctanoic acid releases and its presence in products by 95 percent by no later than 2010 and to work toward eliminating these sources of exposure five years after that but no later than 2015.
The letter NRDC sent to the WHO Executive Board in late December was signed by the California Committee on Safety and Health; Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids; Connecticut Coalition for Environmental Justice; Environmental Health Fund; Environmental Working Group; Infant Feeding Action Coalition Canada; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; International Federation of Building and Woodworkers; International Federation of Journalists; International Metalworkers’ Federation; IUF-International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers Association; Natural Resources Defense Council; Pesticide Action Network North America ; Physicians for Social Responsibility; The Breast Cancer Fund; Third World Network; United Steelworkers of America; and Women’s Environment and Development Organization
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