“Stranger Things” lurk behind the scenes of the food science industry

Like the Netflix show: strange things are occurring in the realm of science which has a direct impact on the food you eat

Between 2015 and 2018, Alex Malaspina exchanged messages with representatives from a few universities and a ‘”non-profit” organization in order to find the “best way” of contacting Margaret Chan Fu-chun, a Chinese doctor and the acting Director-General at the World Health Organization (WHO) in hopes that she would considerer loosening her critical views on highly-processed sugary food products. He is quick to suggest tactics for achieving this, all based on his personal experience. He promptly points out all of the important industry professionals in a seating arrangement map, as well as key lobbyists and seasoned politicians with experience (or who should have experience) in public health matters

“We need to find someone, preferably a famous scientist, and arrange a visit (to see Margaret Chan). Jim Hill (James Hill) or another researcher of equal standing, or even a scientist employed by the US Government. As the president of ILSI, I had a very productive lunch meeting with the former WHO (World Health Organization) Director-General, Dr. Hiroshi Nakajima (who passed away in 2013) back in 1995 in his private dining room located at the WHO headquarters in Geneva, where we discussed the matter of how our two organizations could work together. In 1999, I paid a visit to then-WHO Director-General, Norwegian national Mrs. Gro Harlem Brundtland in Geneva to invite her on behalf of the World Economic Forum to attend Davos later as the keynote speaker at the Food Governors dinner. The future president of Coca-Cola, Neville Isdell joined us at the dinner. In short, I am suggesting that we collectively find a way of initiating talks with Dr. Chen [SIC]. If not, she will continue to attack us with damaging effects on a global scale. This poses a serious threat to our business”, cautions Malaspina.

Fact is, Margaret Chan is no longer Director-General of the WHO. She stepped down in 2017, succeeded by Ethiopian national Tedros Adhanom. But we aren’t the only ones that want to turn back time. The man who wishes he could emulate Tony Stark (Iron Man’s alter-ego played by Robert Downey Jr. in the film Avengers: Endgame in the Marvel/Disney universe) or who desires to cross the portal into the Upside-Down in the hit Netflix show Stranger Things is a very influential figure in the business world.

Malsapina was born in Greece and emigrated to the United States at 17. Today he is 87. He served as the Global Vice-President at Coca-Cola and in 1978 founded the International Life Science Institute; a non-profit organization that receives financing from multi-national companies such as Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pfizer and Bayer/Monsanto (yes, that’s right, sugary drinks, fatty foods, big pharma and agro-toxins). it is also important to note that this man sends out a lot of emails!

This is something that Sarah Steele, Gary Ruskin, Lejla Sarcevic, Martin McKee, and David Stuckler can confirm, all of whom showed a great deal of patience. They read 17,163 pages of emails between them in order to clear up some hazy information, in addition to sifting through a massive collection of online chats whose objectives were to influence public health policies via lobbying initiatives disguised as science. This was a hot topic in academic circles in the US and among the board members of the International Life Science Institute. Alex Malaspina was “the main man” in all of this.

Their effort payed off: on June 2 of this year, a study was published in Globalization and Health magazine analyzing thousands of these talks.

“Based on research financed by the ILSI which has been widely circulated in public health, nutrition and general science journals, we believe that it is of the utmost importance for our colleagues to meticulously assess if these publications and research grants are engaged in lobbying practices” according to the authors behind “Are industry-funded charities promoting advocacy-led studies or evidence-based science?: A case study of the International Life Sciences Institute.”

We have examined the origins of the ILSI here at Joio. However, we do not wish to be too repetitive. We give credit where credit is due, after all, analyzing 17 thousand emails is no small feat.

We agree that this “non-profit” organization is a geopolitical power They have 18 offices spread throughout the globe whose main objectives are tied to health-related issues and occupying strategic geographic locations. It is important to note that ILSI Brazil is alive and well operating at a branch near you.

That’s right: those responsible for examining the thousands of emails have linked this organization to our own backyard, and our kitchen. Researchers at Cambridge University in London and Bocconi University in Italy and at the US Right to Know (somewhat like the United States has the right to know), Sarah, Gary, Lejla, Martin and David analyzed speeches which took place between 2015-18 and found a network of high-profile individuals linked to the junk-food industry and U.S. universities; all of whom had been actively talking about developing “tactics for combating public health policies related to the reduction of sugar in food” on a global scale.

Alex Malaspina asserts his position every chance he gets. In one of the flagged emails, he admits that the ISLI’s mission is to protect the industry. In 2016, in response to the new dietary guidelines adopted in the U.S., he wrote to ISLI’s board of directors which included then-acting Executive-Director Suzana Harris:

“Dear friends, these guidelines are a disaster! They may adversely affect us in several ways. Soft drink taxes, modified school lunch programs, the establishment of strong educational initiatives for children and adults to limit sugar intake, restrictions on ads selling sugary foods and drinks, and eventually, great pressure upon our industry to drastically reduce the amount of sugar added to processed foods.

And it only gets worse.

“Opponents”

Without any hesitation, all the email “buddies” agreed on the fact that they have enemies in common. James Hill (who Malaspina considered to be of “great standing”), director of the Center for Human Nutrition at the University of Colorado, doesn’t think twice when adding fuel to the fire in a hot debate. In one of the talks, he calls on the junk-food industry to increase their funding for ILSI in order to “deal aggressively with this issue” and he states that if the companies “keep their guard down”, “our opponents will win, and we all lose”, in an obvious reference to those scientists and institutes committed to the research on the dangers posed by highly-processed foods.

In 2016, Malaspina sent a bold email to Barbara Bowman, who at the time was acting Director of the Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, a government agency. He outlined the “necessity” (of the industry) for the WHO to “start working with the ILSI once again” ( the WHO discreetly cut ties with ILSI in 2015) and to focus more on the “lifestyle changes of the population” rather than singling out sugary foods as the main culprit in obesity and non-transmittable chronic disease campaigns.

In addition to all this, he brings one of the world’s richest men into the mix.

“Dear Barbara, you have provided me with some valuable ideas. I especially enjoy relying on the help of Mr. Bill Gates. I will discuss this with Clyde (Clyde Tuggle, Senior VP Coca-Cola at the time).

Bill Gates, in addition to his immense wealth from Microsoft and endeavors through the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, has a vested interest in the food industry.

Related to this topic, Professor Adam Drewnowski, director of the Public Health Nutrition Center at the University of Washington weighs in on the matter: “We should explore some issues which the ILSI and the WHO are in agreement so that we can bring them to the table”, says Drewnowski.

There are “family” and “relative” quarrels

The online conversations indicate that the ILSI is actively involved with other “non-profit”, industry-funded organizations in strategy building. They include the International Food Information Council (IFIC), a “scientific communications organization”.

“The IFIC is a sort of sister organization to the ILSI”, explains Malsapina in another email. “The ILSI creates the scientific facts and the IFIC communicates such facts to the media and the public at-large”, continues Malsapina.

The “brother” to ILSI is also a huge partner (they do not have your health in mind dear reader as they are a big financial player in the industry). The content of these messages reinforces that both the ILSI and the IFIC combine their efforts to combat policies and viewpoints deemed unfavorable by the junk-food corporations.

“They do this while promoting positive scientific research for their industry under a false facade, especially when dealing with the media”, says Sarah.

Even private “family” disputes are discussed in the emails. In an excerpt taken from one of these talks in 2015, Malaspina had considered punishing his own “sons”, otherwise known as the ILSI regional branches, if they failed to promote positive viewpoints regarding the junk-food industry.

The emails reveal the intention of suspending the Mexico branch after a specific soft drink tax – enacted in 2014 – was debated at a conference promoted by the ILSI Research Foundation. Not long after the message was sent, the Mexican branch had effectively been suspended and was only reintroduced into the ILSI “pantheon” in 2016 after “adjustments” were made to its board of directors.

“Based on these emails and communication channels, it has been made clear to us that the ILSI is instrumental in championing pro-industry content to international organizations with the intent of debunking the link of sugar to obesity”, adds Sarah Steele.

When their work was done, the five researchers who pored over 17,163 pages of emails (we just wanted to reiterate the grandiosity of this number once more), agree that:

In conclusion, “The analysis of ILSI serves as a warning to all of those involved with global health governance, so that they may be careful with so-called ‘independent’ research groups and to practice due diligence before trusting biased studies”

How does the study define lobbying?

The researchers clearly define lobbying: “We understand it to be any group, organization, association or person who attempts to influence governmental actions (including executive, legislative, judicial and regulatory) to arrive at a favorable result for their own agenda. The European Commission prefers to define it as “a representation of interests that encompass a wider set of actives aimed at influencing decision-making politicians and decision-making processes; other jurisdictions such as the United States frequently employ a more restricted definition in regards to direct involvement. Therefore, United States legislation defines it as “lobbying dealings and efforts in support of such contacts, including preparation and planning activities, research and other groundwork whose purpose is, at the moment it is employed, to make use of said contacts and to coordinate them with third-party lobbying activities”.

Remaining vigilant

The 18 offices of the ILSI which collectively “foster global partnerships towards a healthier world”, are: ILSI Research Foundation, ILSI – Institute of Health and the Environment, ILSI Europe, ILSI North America, ILSI Mexico, ILSI Mesoamerica, ILSI North Andes, ILSI Brazil, ILSI Argentina, ILSI South Andes, ILSI Middle-East, ILSI South Africa, ILSI Southeasr Asia, ILSI Taiwan, ILSI South Korea, ILSI India, ILSI Japan and Focal Point ILSI in China.

What does “daddy” have to say?

ILSI head office countered the study by issuing a memo highlighting the organization’s core values. Let’s have a look.

“ILSI is a global non-profit organization whose mission is to promote science that improves the health and well-being of all humans as well as the environment. ILSI organizations foster public-private scientific partnerships in order to bridge the gap of knowledge for the betterment of the public good.

“ILSI does not engage in lobbying practices nor does it seek to influence individuals, viewpoints and/or specific policies. Furthermore, ILSI explicitly prohibits its organizations or members from defending the commercial interests of its member companies or that of other parties. ILSI provides pre-competitive science informing on the initiatives of industry, government, universities and/or other researchers.

“Alex Malaspina has not been involved in any official or representative capacity within ISIL since 2001. He holds no position at ISIL and any comments which he has made since his departure are those of a retired private citizen.”

To read the article in its entirety, click here.


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Sobre o autor

    Moriti Neto

    Moriti Neto

    É editor e repórter. De preferência, repórter.

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