By Philippe Mottaz and Jamil Chade
June 11, 2021
This post is an on-site edited version of The Geneva Observer Briefing, our newsletter. To receive the Briefing directly in your inbox, register here.
Should the WHO Foundation follow its own (draft) guidelines and reconsider Nestlé's donation?
Already under fire from civil society for having accepted a donation from Nestlé, as we reported last week, we wondered if the WHO Foundation would review its position and policy, especially in light of the FT’s recent revelations that 60% of the company’s food products do not meet the basic recognition of “healthy.” It appears not. A spokesperson for the WHO admitted to The G|O that “it was a huge question, but that we needed to refer it to the WHO Foundation itself.”
We did. “The WHO Foundation is a new and independent organization that raises agile funds to tackle emergencies and health challenges around the world. We can only do that by working in partnership with a range of donors and organizations, to ensure people can access life-saving healthcare whenever they need it,” the Foundation told The G|O by email.
“For years, Nestlé’s public discourse and narrative have always been about health and wellness. That’s the line the company has been pushing repeatedly for years—at its shareholders meetings and at the World Economic Forum. I think these revelations have now completely shattered that image,” Patti Rundall of IBFAN UK, the UK chapter of the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), told The Geneva Observer. IBFAN UK posted the following on its website after the WHO Foundation had tweeted its thanks to Nestlé for its donation:
For the WHO Foundation to accept and boast about Nestlé funding now – especially for COVID – is beyond comprehension. Nestle is currently exploiting fears of infection, promoting and distributing free formula and misleading advice – claiming that its donations are humanitarian and that they are trustworthy partners.
Nestlé’s harmful marketing prompted one of the longest running international consumer boycotts that was a key factor in WHO adopting the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes in 1981 – the world’s first global consumer protection code. This Code, now 40 years old has been updated by 19 resolutions of the World Health Assembly and 70% of the world’s countries have now brought at least part of it into law. In terms of reputational risk to WHO’s work on infant and young child feeding and NCDs – this is a disaster for WHO’s integrity, trustworthiness and independence.
WHO is involved in Monitoring – a critically important function that WHA Resolution 49.15 demands is transparent, independent manner, free from commercial influence.
In its response to The G|O, the WHO Foundation also pushed back against IBFAN’s and civil society’s criticism. “All funds received by the WHO Foundation are not an endorsement of the activities, products or services of any company.”
It also states that the WHO Foundation’s “working draft gift acceptance policy is in the process of being finalized.” The insistence on the fact that the policy has not been finalized is worth noting. For, as it stands now, the policy contains several exclusions criteria, including “contribution to poor health or diet.” Would Nestlé’s admission mean that its donation might be reassessed? Pressed by The G|O on that very point in a follow-up question, the WHO Foundation replied that “We are not able to provide additional comment at this time. As mentioned below, we are still in the process of finalizing the gift acceptance policy and cannot comment on the outcome or implications until the process is finalized.”
Measuring the industry's influence on the WHO 2014 sugar intake guidelines.
In 2014, Nestlé was an active participant in the WHO’s consultations regarding its new proposed guidelines on sugars intake. The document was published one year later, fueling the debate on the relationship between the industry and the WHO, an issue that the WHO decided to analyze in depth.
In 2016, it published a textual analysis of the sugar industry influence on the guideline. Led by the researchers David Stuckler, Aaron Reeves, Rachel Loopstra and Martin McKee, the study found that the “main change” brought by the private sector “to the final version of the guideline was linked to emphasizing the low quality of the evidence on sugar’s adverse effects.” The authors concluded that “there was little change between draft and final versions of the WHO sugars intake guideline 2015, following industry consultation. (…) Although the sugar industry used several tactics to undermine the guideline’s recommendations, their development was not substantially affected.”
Their textual analysis, however, revealed that “many of the sugar industry’s arguments were characteristic of denialism, which is widely practiced by the tobacco and alcohol industries to thwart effective public health interventions.” “The overarching strategy was to promote doubt and, thereby, undermine the case for changing the status quo,” the study says.
Borrowing from the tobacco and alcohol industries book
Several methods were used. One tactic involved directly disputing the health effects associated with a reduction in sugar. The World Sugar Research Organisation (WSRO)—a lobby for the sugar industry—claimed in its submission that there was no evidence to support WHO’s statement in the draft guideline that: “There is no harm associated with reducing the intake of free sugars to less than 5% of total energy.” Other industry submissions went further and argued that reducing sugar consumption could lead to higher fat intake.
A second tactic was to directly challenge the validity of the evidence. “Several submissions from sugar industry-related organizations argued that the distinction between different types of sugar made by WHO was not scientific,” the study claims.
For example, Sugar Nutrition UK stated that the “distinction between ‘free’, ‘added’ and ‘other’ sugars is not based on any sound scientific principles, given that it is impossible to analytically distinguish between sugars present naturally in a food and those which have been added during cooking or manufacturing.”
Despite the pressure, the authors concludes that WHO resisted most of the demands for change in the final version of its document. “Guideline development appeared relatively resistant to industry influence at the stakeholder consultation stage.”