NRDC-Led Coalition Convinces UN Health Agency to Loosen Corporate Ties

WASHINGTON (January 31, 2006) -- At the urging of a coalition of health, environmental and labor groups, the World Health Organization (WHO) has barred an industry association from participating in setting global standards protecting food and water supplies.

At a meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, late last week, the UN health agency's executive board decided that the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a U.S.-based association of hundreds of food, chemical and pharmaceutical companies, can no longer take a role in WHO health-standard setting activities because its members have a financial stake in the outcome.

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 it sever its ties to ILSI because the relationship violates the health agency's own guidelines. WHO requires that NGOs 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 decision-making 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 (NGOs) the agency considers to be working partners.

ILSI represents several hundred corporations in the chemical, processed food, agro-chemical and pharmaceutical industries. Its membership includes Atofina Chemicals, Bayer CropScience, Coca Cola, Dow Agrosciences/Dow Chemical, DuPont, Eli Lilly, ExxonMobil, General Mills, Glaxo Smith Kline, Hershey Foods, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald's, Merck & Co. Monsanto, Nestle, Novartis, PepsiCo, Pfizer, Proctor and Gamble and Syngenta. (For a complete list, go to

Over the years, ILSI has participated in WHO activities despite its members' special interest in the outcome. For example:

  • ILSI, which includes leading processed foods companies, worked behind the scenes to fund a 1998 WHO-UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) report on carbohydrates and nutrition (see the report). The report concluded somewhat surprisingly that 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 contrasted sharply with common sense, as well as a 1990 WHO report that found that sugar contributes to the risk of chronic disease (see the recommendations) and a 2003 WHO-FAO report recommending that people restrict sugar consumption sugar to less than 10 percent of their food energy intake (download the report).

ILSI also has tried to stave off stronger curbs on toxic pollutants by misrepresenting study results and sowing doubt about existing science. For example:

  • 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 second-hand 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. The relationship between ILSI and the tobacco industry is detailed in a February 2001 report by the WHO Tobacco Free Initiative (download the report).
  • In the United States, ILSI routinely hosts workshops for industry, academic and federal agency scientists that have been a very effective tool for influencing critical health and environmental policy decisions. When the EPA assessed a class of chemicals that includes perfluorochemicals used by DuPont to make Teflon, the EPA drafted its policy based largely on an ILSI review claiming that although the chemicals caused cancer in test rodents, the way they caused cancer was irrelevant to humans, and therefore that the whole class of chemicals should be considered safe (download the report). An independent scientific panel rejected EPA's draft policy because it was not supported by the data. Ironically, late last year DuPont was slapped with the largest administrative fine in EPA's history to settle charges that it hid information for more than two decades showing that its Teflon-chemicals are a significant threat to human health. Lab animal tests linked the chemical with liver and testicular cancer, reduced weight of newborns, and immune system suppression.

The letter NRDC sent to the WHO Executive Board in late December was signed by the following organizations:

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