Big Food occupies university seats in Brazil’s health regulation agency

Researchers aligned with the private sector act in groups that subsidize the formulation of public policies, succeeding in guaranteeing a majority for corporations. The federal body chooses to keep quiet

The food industry occupies seats reserved for universities and research institutes in collegiums of Brazil’s health regulatory body. Although they have their own seats, the corporations spare no effort in ensuring the support of allied researchers, succeeding in influencing the definition of the agenda and rules of the National Health Monitoring Agency (ANVISA).

The economic sector has a majority in some areas, particularly in the working groups that subsidize the formulation of public policies. The main industry representative occupying the seats of the academic community is the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which was created in 1978 by Coca-Cola. “ILSI International and ILSI Brazil believe that the scientific forum is a neutral forum and the only one that can provide safe responses for a population that requires scientific input,” argued the president of ILSI Brazil, Ary Bucione, during the interview he granted us.

The organization, which was founded in the USA, currently has 17 regional bodies distributed throughout the world, always seeking collaboration among science, industry and government. In Brazil, there are almost 40 sponsor companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Danone, Ajinomoto, BASF, Cargill, Pepsico, Unilever and Kellogg’s.

We reviewed over 100 sets of ANVISA working group meeting minutes. We interviewed dozens of people. We read the scientific material submitted by researchers and directly by the industry to substantiate decision-making. We did not find any relevant divergence between the positions of the food companies and the ILSI (including a number of professors whose work is funded by the private sector).

ILSI and other organizations close to the industry have worked to streamline processes within ANVISA, in particular in relation to new products. As the industry invests a great amount in innovation, it is always a few steps ahead of the regulatory agenda and academic research. Whenever he speaks publicly, Bucione emphasizes the fact that ILSI is a scientific organization. Nevertheless, at some ANVISA meetings, the institute is represented by company employees, including Bucione himself, who is from DuPont, which manufactures ingredients supplied to the food industry.

Aldo Baccarin, a former Kraft Foods employee and president of ILSI Brazil from 2001 to 2015, represented the institute during a working group meeting on functional food. “The ILSI is an abstract organization”, Baccarin told us, and was unusually silent at one point during the conversation, which lasted more than an hour, in August 2017. “Yes, we send the people with the greatest level of knowledge, and they are always advised by somebody with a science background. They have to be very careful because, if a conflict of interest becomes apparent at any point, they need to abstain and leave.”

The group was formed by a commission set up in 1999 and has been constantly dominated by the ILSI. The organization had two direct seats and it also had the right to two more seats reserved for academia.

Franco Lajolo, President of the ILSI Scientific Committee, asked whether margarine, instant soup and chocolate could carry claims of health benefits.
He is the co-proprietor of two patents, one from 2007 on green banana flour, a functional food, and another from 2011 financed by SADIA, which just happens to be trying to promote frozen ready meals as having health benefits.

“The university should take into account the scientific evidence and it is precisely at that point that the situation becomes complicated. Essentially, the university representatives do not speak with one voice,” summarized Rafael Claro, professor at the Minas Gerais Federal University, who was involved in a working group on functional foods. “Frankly speaking, there is now a register of possible conflicts of interest; however, as far as I am aware, nobody is vetoed and nobody’s opinion is rejected.”

No secret formula

At a meeting of the Working Group on Nutrition and Food for Special Purposes, held at the beginning of July in São Paulo, the president of the Brazilian Food and Nutrition Society (SBAN), who was actually registered as a member of a public university, was somewhat impatient when it came to the details of the discussion on the labelling of infant formulas for children over the age of one. Details are precisely the raison d’être of the group, which has been discussing international regulations in this field since 2010. Such work can involve hours spent on a single word or sentence.

“In the past, there was only one formula, and nobody died as a result. I was brought up on Nido,” said Olga Amâncio, President of the SBAN, an ILSI partner organization which has been criticized for its association with the major food companies. The SBAN recently promoted videos on social networks defending cow’s milk and Nestlé was its major sponsor at a congress.

At the end of October, during a public hearing in the Chamber of Deputies, the SBAN spoke against the creation of a special tax on soft drinks. Some days later, it defended the front-of-pack labelling design proposed by the private sector, in opposition to that put forward by civil society organizations. The issue is central to the current debates at ANVISA, which to date has not decided between the system supported by civil society and that advocated by the companies.

“The conflict of interest is sometimes very subtle,” summarized Renata Monteiro, a researcher at the Dietary Health and Nutrition Policy Observatory at the University of Brasilia, who took part in working group meetings at ANVISA and the Ministry of Health. “I am a health professional; therefore, when I am called to an area like this, I know exactly what my role is. It’s more complicated when it’s an academic who is closer to the industry, because they are not trying to discuss the scientific issue: they are there to mediate between the industry and the academic issue, trying to come up with an academic argument to justify certain things that the industry wants to do.”

Open doors

ANVISA’s resolutions follow a ritual. First, the matter has to be included in a list of regulation priorities. Then it has to be debated. Next, a motion for a resolution, or draft regulation, is published and submitted for public consultation and receives contributions from stakeholders. The ILSI participates actively in all of these stages.

The institute’s material on macro and micronutrients forms the basis of ANVISA’s references. There are ILSI members who, years ago, bagged the only seat set aside for the academic community in the Brazilian delegation for the Codex Alimentarius Commission, which defines international regulations on food and related commerce.

“There is no doubt about it. We have quite a close relationship with them, but we participate only in regulatory meetings. Whenever ANVISA asks us for scientific opinions, yes, we have a good and very interesting relationship, which has contributed significantly to the meetings of ANVISA itself,” said Bucione, the President of the ILSI.

Attempts by the private sector to occupy academic areas is not a Brazilian phenomenon. The US non-governmental organization Right to Know recently revealed an exchange of e-mails between two Coca-Cola executives. Alex Malaspina, the founder of the ILSI and still influential in the organization, and Ernest Knowles, former vice-president of institutional relations at Coca-Cola, raised concern about the course of the debate on obesity. Knowles suggested that the company should be heading the discussions, financing medical and scientific organizations and strengthening the action of the ILSI in its search for the causes of the epidemic.

In 2012, the Corporate Europe Observatory published a document illustrating that the ILSI had unrestricted access to EFSA, the food regulatory body on the continent.

On the whole, concluded the observatory, the role of the institute was to act according to more lenient rules that earn millions (or billions) for the sponsor companies. After several pieces of evidence indicating that the ILSI was influencing important decisions taken by the regulatory body, EFSA adopted a new model of engagement and decided to exclude the think tank from certain debates. In the face of ILSI protests, the then EFSA executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, wrote a letter stating that the organization represented “private interests” and that the agency was “very well positioned to know the nature of its work.”

In Brazil, ANVISA has chosen to remain silent, despite having been contacted for an opinion persistently since August.

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