Board members of a front group for the world’s junk food empires have been included as representatives by India’s food safety regulator, the Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI).
These representatives belong to the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a US-based global non-profit ‘science organization’ — financed by Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestle and Pepsi, among other corporates.
In fact, the ILSI was founded by Coca-Cola’s former senior vice president by Alex Malaspina in 1978. Until 31 December 2015, it was led by Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s chief health and science officer at the time.
The ILSI has organised conferences in India “ downplaying the role of sugar and diet, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution to obesity,” said the India Resource Center (IRC), an international campaigning organisation, in a press statement on 7 February 2019 condemning the development. A Harvard study published this January in The BMJ and the Journal of Public Health Policy stated that through the ILSI’s China branch, Coca Cola and other corporates had influenced China’s public health policies, including a “shift aligned with Coca-Cola’s message that it is activity, not diet, that mattersa claim few public health scholars accept.”
The two ILSI’s board members included by the FSSAI are — Dr Debabrata Kanungo of ILSI–India, who is on the Scientific Panel on Pesticides Residues at the FSSAI; and Dr B Sesikaran of ILSI-India, who is a member of FSSAI’s Scientific Panel on Functional foods, Nutraceuticals, Dietetic Products and Other similar products.
Sesikaran is also on the Board of Trustees of the global ILSI based in Washington, DC. He serves on the board alongside representatives of PepsiCo, Danone, Ajinomoto, Monsanto, Cargill, Dupont, and other corporates. “He is the only board member listed with a government affiliation,” as the IRC pointed out.
“Quite alarmingly, ILSI could have significant say on what labels on packaged foods in India reveal,” said the IRC.
“India is in the midst of revising its labelling laws and in April 2018, FSSAI released the draft Food Safety and Standards (Labelling and Display) Regulations 2018, which included a rule that the label on packaged foods should state in the color RED if the product contained high levels of fat, sugar or salt (generally considered as junk food).”
After some stakeholders raised concerns, the draft rules were put on hold. A 3-member committee was constituted by the FSSAI to “look into the issue of labelling once again.”
And Sesikaran, who is board member at both ILSI global and ILSI-India, is heading the three-member expert committee.
Amit Srivastava of IRC said, “Individuals who play a significant part in protecting and regulating India’s food safety should not be allowed to also occupy central roles with ILSI, a front organisation for companies that essentially peddle junk food and use front organizations to muddle science.”
“Such dual roles constitute a serious conflict of interest, and if left unattended, can have the very real consequence of the food industry defining India’s policies on nutrition, food safety and obesity – as has been the case in China,” he said.
Coca-Cola is known for obfuscating the facts to meet its corporate needs.
According to a report in the New York Times cited by the IRC, when Coca Cola was under pressure for causing water shortages in India in 2006, it hired a lobbyist named Deepak Talwar, whose “lobbying approach was to ensure, among other things, that every government or private study accusing the company of environmental harm was challenged by another study.”
The India Resource Center has written to the FSSAI as well as the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare, demanding that these two representatives with conflicts of interest be removed and “replaced with independent experts with no conflicts of interest between private corporations and public health and safety.”