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Influential Science Nonprofit ILSI Exposed as a Food Industry Lobby Group

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Influential Science Nonprofit ILSI Exposed as a Food Industry Lobby Group
Kirill Kukhmar / TASS / Getty Images

By Stacy Malkan

The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a corporate-funded nonprofit group with chapters around the world that claim to conduct "science for the public good," but documents released in a new study reveal that the influential ILSI science group is a actually a lobby group that protects the interests of the food industry, not public health.


The June 2019 paper in Globalization and Health describes internal emails that were obtained by the public interest group U.S. Right to Know via state public records laws. The documents reveal clear examples of how ILSI advances the interests of the food industry, especially by promoting industry-friendly science and arguments to policymakers. "Researchers have labelled the International Life Sciences Institute an industry front group, after studying thousands of documents," reported the BMJ.

As one example, the paper quotes an email from Alex Malaspina, the former Coca-Cola executive who founded ILSI, lamenting the failure of ILSI Mexico to follow the industry position on soda taxes. Malaspina describes "the mess ILSI Mexico is in because they sponsored in September a sweeteners conference when the subject of soft drinks taxation was discussed. ILSI is now suspending ILSI Mexico, until they correct their ways. A real mess."


2015 email from Alex Malaspina, founder of ILSI.

Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola from 1969-2001, founded ILSI in 1978. Coca-Cola has kept close ties with ILSI ever since. From 2009-2011, the president of ILSI was Michael Ernest Knowles, who was also Coca-Cola's VP of global scientific and regulatory affairs from 2008–2013. In 2015, ILSI's president was Rhona Applebaum, who retired from her job as Coca-Cola's chief health and science officer (and from ILSI) in 2015 after the New York Times and Associated Press reported that Coke funded the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network to help shift blame for obesity away from sugary drinks.

Emails obtained by U.S. Right to Know and reported in a 2016 study revealed that Coke proposed and financed the Global Energy Balance Network as a "weapon" in the "growing war between the pubic health community and private industry" over obesity and the obesity epidemic.

ILSI is funded by its corporate members and company supporters, including leading food and chemical companies such as Coca-Cola, BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Syngenta, Mars, McDonalds, chemical industry trade groups, and many others. In its annual report, ILSI and its branches reported $17,481,251 in expenses for 2017 but did not disclose specific donor information. A document obtained via a state freedom of information request shows corporate contributions to ILSI Global amounting to $2.4 million in 2012. The largest donations were $500,000 from Monsanto and over $500,000 from the pesticide industry trade group, Crop Life International. ILSI's draft 2013 IRS tax returns show $337,000 in donations from Coca-Cola and over $650,000 from six agrichemical companies, BASF, Bayer, Dow, Monsanto, Pioneer Hi Bred and Syngenta.

ILSI Undermined Obesity Fight in China

In January 2019, two papers by Harvard Prof. Susan Greenhalgh revealed ILSI's powerful influence on the Chinese government on issues related to obesity. Prof. Geenhalgh's articles in the Journal of Public Health Policy and the BMJ document how Coca-Cola and other corporations worked through the China branch of ILSI to influence decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related illnesses such as Type 2 diabetes and hypertension.

Jan. 9 article in New York Times.

ILSI is so well-placed in China that it operates from inside the government's Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in Beijing. Dr. Greenhalgh's papers document how Coca-Cola and other Western food and beverage giants "helped shape decades of Chinese science and public policy on obesity and diet-related diseases" by operating through ILSI to cultivate key Chinese officials "in an effort to stave off the growing movement for food regulation and soda taxes that has been sweeping the west," reported Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times.

Recent studies on ILSI's influence and approach can also be found in Critical Public Health and the Milbank Quarterly.

ILSI Sugar Study “Right Out of the Tobacco Industry’s Playbook”

In 2016, public health experts denounced an ILSI-funded sugar study published in a prominent medical journal that presented a "scathing attack on global health advice to eat less sugar," reported Anahad O'Connor in The New York Times. The ILSI-funded study argued that warnings to cut sugar are based on weak evidence and cannot be trusted.

The Times story quoted Marion Nestle, a professor at New York University who studies conflicts of interest in nutrition research, on the ILSI study: "This comes right out of the tobacco industry's playbook: cast doubt on the science," Nestle said. "This is a classic example of how industry funding biases opinion. It's shameful."

ILSI has also been accused of working directly on the tobacco industry playbook to thwart public safety measures to reduce smoking. A July 2000 report by an independent committee of the World Health Organization outlined a number of ways in which the tobacco industry attempted to undermine WHO tobacco control efforts, including using scientific groups to influence WHO's decision-making and to manipulate scientific debate surrounding the health effects of tobacco. ILSI played a key role in these efforts, according to a case study about ILSI from the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative. "Findings indicate that ILSI was used by certain tobacco companies to thwart tobacco control policies. Senior office bearers in ILSI were directly involved in these actions," according to the case study.

ILSI Leaders Played Key Role in Defending Glyphosate as Chairs of WHO Panel

In May 2016, ILSI was caught "in a conflict of interest row over glyphosate cancer risk," reported Arthur Neslen in the Guardian, after revelations that the vice president of ILSI Europe, Prof. Alan Boobis, was also chairman of the UN Joint Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR) panel that found Monsanto's chemical glyphosate was unlikely to pose a cancer risk through diet. The co-chair of the JMPR panel, Prof. Angelo Moretto, was a board member of ILSI's Health and Environment Services Institute. Neither of the chairs declared their ILSI leadership roles as conflicts of interest, despite the significant financial contributions ILSI has received from Monsanto and the pesticide industry trade group.

ILSI’s Cozy Ties at U.S. CDC 

In June 2016, U.S. Right to Know reported that Dr. Barbara Bowman, director of a U.S. Centers for Disease Control division charged with preventing heart disease and stroke, tried to help ILSI's founder Alex Malaspina influence World Health Organization officials to back off policies to reduce sugar consumption. Bowman suggested people and groups for Malaspina to talk to, and solicited his comments on some CDC summaries of reports, the emails show. (Bowman stepped down after our first article was published reporting on these ties.)

A January 2019 study in the Milbank Quarterly describes key emails of Malaspina cozying up to Dr. Bowman.

ILSI Influence in India 

ILSI has close ties to some Indian government officials and, as in China, the nonprofit has pushed similar messaging and policy proposals as Coca-Cola — downplaying the role of sugar and diet as a cause of obesity, and promoting increased physical activity as the solution, according to the India Resource Center. Members of ILSI India's board of trustees include Coca-Cola India's director of regulatory affairs and representatives from Nestlé and Ajinomoto, a food additive company, along with government officials who serve on scientific panels that are tasked with deciding about food safety issues.

Longstanding Concerns About ILSI

ILSI insists it is not an industry lobby group, but concerns and complaints are longstanding about the group's pro-industry stances and conflicts of interest among the organization's leaders.

In 2010, Nature reported on concerns about conflicts of interest between ILSI and the European Food Safety Authority, and noted that the industry ties may taint the reputation of the European regulatory body.

A 2019 book by Dr. Tim Noakes and Marika Sboros, Real Food on Trial (Columbus Publishing), recounts the "unprecedented prosecution" of Dr. Noakes "in a multimillion rand case that stretched over more than four years. All for a single tweet giving his opinion on nutrition." Russ Greene reported on the controversy in a 2017 article for Keep Fitness Legal. "The Food Industry is attempting to use Dr. Noakes in order to set an example to anyone who dares challenge its authority in nutrition," Greene wrote.

Stacy Malkan is co-director of U.S. Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative research group focused on the food industry. She is author of the book, "Not Just a Pretty Face: The Ugly Side of the Beauty Industry" (New Society 2007).

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The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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