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UN agency chief clarifies World Health Organization’s work with food and beverage industry

Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.
UN Photo/Paulo Filgueiras
Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization.

UN agency chief clarifies World Health Organization’s work with food and beverage industry

The top United Nations health official today emphasized the World Health Organization’s (WHO) independence in its work to set global standards and guidelines in the fight against obesity-related diseases, saying that recent media claims to the contrary are wrong.

“Several recent media articles are creating misinformation and confusion in the public health arena,” WHO’s Director-General, Dr. Margaret Chan, said in a statement issued by the Geneva-based agency.

“These articles are erroneously suggesting that, in working to reduce noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as cardiovascular diseases, cancers, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes, WHO receives funding from the food and beverage industry,” she added.

“The allegations in these articles are wrong,” Dr. Chan noted in her statement, which went on to “set the record straight” about a 19 October ‘Special Report’ by the news agency Thomson Reuters, the world’s largest news agency, and another news item, on 1 November, by the U.S. magazine Mother Jones.

Combating NCDs is a priority for WHO because they contribute to the deaths of 36 million people – representing 63 per cent of all deaths – annually around the world, according to Dr. Chan. With 14 million of those who die under 70 years of age, WHO regards their deaths as “premature and largely preventable,” she added.

Under a headline stating ‘Food, beverage industry pays for seat at health-policy table,’ the Thomson Reuters news item claims WHO’s regional office in Mexico has “not only” turned to food and beverage companies for advice on how to fight obesity-related ailments in that country, but also accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from them. The news item identifies the WHO regional office as the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO).

The Mother Jones article – headlined ‘Is the Junk Food Industry Buying the WHO?’ – quotes extensively from the Thomson Reuters piece, adding that WHO’s interest in “partnerships” comes at a time when the “global economic slowdown has meant tighter UN budgets.”

In her statement, Dr. Chan said WHO uses a “rigorous process to protect its work from undue industry influence” as it helps develop norms, standards and guidelines for protecting and improving people’s health.

“When WHO works with the private sector, the Organization takes all possible measures to ensure its work to develop policy and guidelines is protected from industry influence,” she said.

The health agency chief said that WHO may engage with the private sector on occasion, but added that its policies state that “funds may not be sought or accepted from enterprises that have a direct commercial interest” in the project at hand.

“All experts on WHO advisory groups for developing norms, standards and guidelines are required to disclose interests regarding the advisory committee’s area of work,” Dr. Chan said.

“If a declared interest is potentially significant, then the expert is either excluded from the meeting or given a restricted role.”

Dr. Chan stated that WHO “does not accept funding from the food and beverage manufacturers for work on NCD prevention and control.”

In addressing PAHO specifically, Dr. Chan noted it was “unique” among WHO’s regional offices because it is not exclusively a branch of the UN health agency.

“It contains two separate legal entities,” she said, noting that PAHO is the health agency of the region-wide Organization of the American States, while the WHO Regional Office for the Americas, known by the acronym AMRO, serves as the second legal entity.

“In some areas the two entities may have variations in policy,” Dr. Chan stated. “For example, as mentioned in the media reports, in its capacity as PAHO, food and beverage manufacturers have contributed financially as part of a multi-sector forum to address NCDs.”

Dr. Chan noted that global leaders, at a high-level UN General Assembly meeting last year, called on the private sector to help implement WHO recommendations aimed reducing exposure to the risk factors that contribute to NCDs.

“The WHO Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health commits WHO to hold discussions with the private sector, but the Organization will not take money from private companies active in food and beverage production for work on NCD prevention and control as implied by the media articles,” Dr. Chan said.

The global call to heed WHO recommendations was included in the Political Declaration of the High-level Meeting of the General Assembly on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, the WHO chief’s statement added.