by Marion Nestle
Sep 19 2011

United Nations to consider the effects of food marketing on chronic disease

In what Bloomberg News terms an “epidemic battle,” food companies are doing everything they can to prevent the United Nations from issuing a statement that says anything about how food marketing promotes obesity and related chronic diseases.

The U.N. General Assembly meets in New York on September 19 and 20 to develop a global response to the obesity-related increase in non-communicable, chronic diseases (cancer, cardiovascular disease, respiratory disease, type 2 diabetes) now experienced by both rich and poor countries throughout the world.

As the Bloomberg account explains,

Company officials join political leaders and health groups to come up with a plan to reverse the rising tide of non- communicable diseases….On the table are proposals to fight obesity, cut tobacco and alcohol use and expand access to lifesaving drugs in an effort to tackle unhealthy diets and lifestyles that drive three of every five deaths worldwide. At stake for the makers of snacks, drinks, cigarettes and drugs is a market with combined sales of more than $2 trillion worldwide last year.

Commenting on the collaboration of food companies in this effort:

“It’s kind of like letting Dracula advise on blood bank security,” said Jorge Alday, associate director of policy with World Lung Foundation, which lobbies for tobacco control.

The lobbying, to understate the matter, is intense.  On one side are food corporations with a heavy financial stake in selling products in developing countries.  Derek Yach, for example, a senior executive of PepsiCo, argues in the British Medical Journal that it’s too simplistic to recommend nutritional changes to reduce chronic disease risk.  [Of course it is, but surely cutting down on fast food, junk food, and sodas ought to be a good first step?]

On the other side are public health advocates concerned about conflicts of interest in the World Health Organization.  So is the United Nations’ special rapporteur for  the right to food, Olivier De Schutter.  Mr. De Schutter writes that the “chance to crack down on bad diets must not be missed.”

On the basis of several investigative visits to developing countries,  De Schutter calls for “the adoption of a host of initiatives, such as taxing unhealthy products and regulating harmful food marketing practices…Voluntary guidelines are not enough. World leaders must not bow to industry pressure.”

If we are serious about tackling the rise of cancer and heart disease, we need to make ambitious, binding commitments to tackle one of the root causes – the food that we eat.

The World Health Organization’s (WHO) 2004 Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health must be translated into concrete action: it is unacceptable that when lives are at stake, we go no further than soft, promotional measures that ultimately rely on consumer choice, without addressing the supply side of the food chain.

It is crucial for world leaders to counter food industry efforts to sell unbalanced processed products and ready-to-serve meals too rich in trans fats and saturated fats, salt and sugars. Food advertising is proven to have a strong impact on children, and must be strictly regulated in order to avoid the development of bad eating habits early in life.

A comprehensive strategy on combating bad diets should also address the farm policies which make some types of food more available than others…Currently, agricultural policies encourage the production of grains, rich in carbohydrates but relatively poor in micronutrients, at the expense of the production of fruits and vegetables.

We need to question how subsidies are targeted and improve access to markets for the most nutritious foods.…The public health consequences are dramatic, and they affect disproportionately those with the lowest incomes.

In 2004, the U.N. caved in to pressures from food companies and weakened its guidelines and recommendations.  The health situation is worse now and affects people in developing as well as industrialized countries.  Let’s hope the General Assembly puts health above politics this time.


  • Kathaleen Briggs Early PhD, RD, CDE

    I will be shocked and amazed if the UN DOESN’T cave to industry pressure. Thanks for bringing this to our attention!

  • Caroline

    Great article. I find it laughable that Derek Yach of PepsiCo. argues that it’s too simplistic to recommend nutritional changes to reduce chronic disease risk. As you mentioned, of course it is an incredibly broad suggestion for an incredibly huge problem but the correlation between our poor health and the food we eat is pretty glaring.

    It’s not rocket science to figure out that putting crappy, highly caloric, and unnatural food into our bodies leads to health related problems. Hopefully the UN General Assembly will strengthen its guidelines and recommendations this time around.

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  • Yachtastic

    Earlier today:
    Breakfast Panel hosted by PepsiCo, Business Council for the UN, and the United Nations Foundation

    Exploring the Intersection of Agriculture, Nutrition and Health: A Breakfast Briefing
    Monday, September 19, 2011
    8:00 – 10:00 am
    Delegates Dining Room, United Nations Headquarters, New York
    First Avenue at E 46th Street

    Dear Participant,

    We are delighted that you will attend the Breakfast Panel hosted by PepsiCo, Business Council for the UN, and the United Nations Foundation, “Exploring the Intersection of Agriculture, Nutrition, and Health” on Monday September 19, 2011 from 8:00 to 10:00 a.m. at the United Nations Delegates Dining Room at UN Headquarters, New York City.

    Due to heightened security measures in conjunction with the UN General Assembly meetings, access to the area around UN Headquarters will be granted only to holders of valid UN ground passes and special events passes. We ask that you arrive between 7:00 and 7:30 a.m. on September 19 at our designated meeting point (Southeast corner of 47th Street and Second Avenue) where you will obtain a special event pass and then be escorted to UN screening and the UN Delegates Dining Room. Our representatives will meet you at the 47th Street/Second Ave meeting point, recognizable by signage (“PepsiCo/BCUN Breakfast”).

    We regret that participants may not bring guests who are not already on our RSVP list. Please note that there will be heightened security, street closures, and heavy traffic in the vicinity of UN headquarters (42nd to 46th Streets between First and Second Aves) so walking or subway is the best way to approach the area.

    Please bring a photo ID with you, and avoid bringing large luggage.

    Seating is limited. Would you alert us as soon as possible by email or phone if you need to cancel: Mr. Ryan Travers 202-778-1476 rtravers @

    We look forward to welcoming you for the exploration of this important theme and the opportunity for global engagement.

    Thank you.

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  • A small action may cause a big change in food industry.Acturally,it’s a good news that UN consider the problem,but they also should put their attention on the impoverishment country that lots of people are in hunger.Thank you.

  • Iam feel very sad for food’s safety.Hopefully the UN General Assembly will strengthen its guidelines and recommendations.

  • Jodie

    When and how will we be able to find out what the UN finally decides and publishes? I can’t wait to see this…

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  • Food marketing is there to sell any company’s food product. I doesn’t matter that it is not healthy and the majority of people do whatever they see. What is there to investigate?

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