For decades, many food and beverage corporations have influenced nutrition and public health policy through the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). From shaping public school cafeteria menus in the U.S. to delaying an initiative to post warning labels on unhealthy packaged foods in India, ILSI is one of the main avenues that dozens of food, beverage, and agriculture corporations use to wield their power in food policy circles.
But now, thanks to your action and the incredible organizing of partners and advocates around the world, that’s about to change. Coca-Cola, one of ILSI’s most prominent members (in fact ILSI was founded by a former Coca-Cola executive), has announced that it will officially terminate its ILSI membership effective January 2021. This is a vital milestone in the global campaign to expose the underhanded tactics corporations have time and again systemically used to stall progress on sound common-sense nutrition policy.
ILSI provides the requisite façade to these junk food corporations to conceal the truth of the real and devastating impacts that their products have on people’s health and well-being. Their work is often done through funding and/or production of junk science or by its people getting appointed to critical public policy platforms (such as the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee). Even USDA officials have had troubling ties with this industry group, and such ties seem to be working well for the industry. As we now know, the recently published Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025 are not recommending any more reduction in added sugar intake for adults than outlined in previous guidelines, catering to the interest of Big Soda and against what robust scientific evidence has suggested over decades.
This makes Coca-Cola’s announcement even more noteworthy–and it would not have been possible without you. This past spring, 70,000 people and 40 organizations demanded that corporations stop funding ILSI. We took your demands to the CEOs and executives of a few major players like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, along with our scathing exposé on ILSI, “Partnership for an Unhealthy Planet.”
The report exposed how food and beverage corporations leverage ILSI to shape public health policy and science on their behalf, at an overwhelming cost to public health and at the integrity of government and academic institutions. Our research created a notable media buzz—earning coverage in The Washington Post, The New York Times, the British Medical Journal and others.
The findings were informed by allies who have closely followed ILSI’s abusive tactics for years. This includes U.S. Right to Know, an investigative research group focused on promoting transparency in public health, and Dr. Mélissa Mialon and Dr. Eric Crosbie, academics focused on exposing the influence of the food industry on public health policy across the world.
Together, we ensured that the call to sever ties with ILSI was also a central demand at the corporations’ annual shareholders’ meetings this past spring. During the PepsiCo shareholder meeting, our ally Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a pediatrician and public health advocate in Washington D.C., spoke about the children and families she serves in her practice, who have been devastated by diabetes largely due to Big Soda’s persistent marketing of its sugar-laden drinks in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. And during the Coca-Cola shareholders meeting, we demanded accountability from Coca-Cola’s executives and board members for the company’s unhealthy sugar-laden products and irresponsible marketing practices.
Coca-Cola’s decision to discontinue its ILSI membership follows the moves of other major food and beverage corporations, including Mars, Inc. and Nestlé. It also follows the total rebranding of ILSI’s Research Foundation (ILSI RF), which changed its entity name to the Agriculture & Food Systems Institute (AFSI) just a few days after our report’s release. With the same team and trustees with corporate ties, ILSI RF, now AFSI, is seemingly distancing itself from ILSI, but is still backed by the private sector and supports research on topics such as nutrition and food. The timing of these two announcements indicates that any affiliation to ILSI is becoming a reputational liability for these corporations.
We will keep this momentum going to ensure that all corporations can no longer use this front group to influence health and nutrition policy around the world. And other industry groups meddling in public health and nutrition science and policy must take this as a warning to stop their political interference.