by Marion Nestle
Jun 27 2013

World Health Organization takes on the food industry

I’ve just been sent a copy of  the opening address given by the Director-General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, to a Global Conference on Health Promotion in Helsinki on June 10.

Here is an excerpt from her extraordinary remarks:

Today, getting people to lead healthy lifestyles and adopt healthy behaviours faces opposition from forces that are not so friendly.  Not at all.

Efforts to prevent noncommunicable [chronic] diseases go against the business interests of powerful economic operators.

In my view, this is one of the biggest challenges facing health promotion…it is not just Big Tobacco anymore.  Public health must also contend with Big Food, Big Soda,and Big Alcohol.

All of these industries fear regulation, and protect themselves by using the same tactics.

Research has documented these tactics well. They include front groups, lobbies, promises of self-regulation, lawsuits, and industry-funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt.

Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public.

They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.

This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power…

Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic in all age groups.  This is not a failure of individual will-power. This is a failure of political will to take on big business…

I am deeply concerned by two recent trends.

The first relates to trade agreements. Governments introducing measures to protect the health of their citizens are being taken to court, and challenged in litigation. This is dangerous.

The second is efforts by industry to shape the public health policies and strategies that affect their products. When industry is involved in policy-making, rest assured that the most effective control measures will be downplayed or left out entirely. This, too, is well documented, and dangerous.

In the view of WHO, the formulation of health policies must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.

Dr. Chan was courageous to say this so clearly.  Would that our health officials would be as brave.

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  • Linda Watson

    Thanks so much for sharing this brave speech and the supporting links. Because I focus on thrifty food, I often see the insidious effect of forcing pubic services to find alternatives to neutral money. For example, schools can’t get money from their cities to educate, so they bring in soft drinks. Professional conferences are sponsored by Big Food, so the watchdogs become reluctant to speak out.

  • Linda Watson

    Public, not pubic! Damn you, autocorrect! Marion, please fix after you laugh if you can.

  • Ashley Salazar

    We need more leaders like this! You are right to say Dr. Chan is courageous. Not many are willing to stand up to big business. She is fighting for all the people who don’t even realize why they are losing a battle against obesity and metabolic syndrome. The public needs to be aware of financial influence on food guidelines and recommendations. Why is sugar on the GRAS list? Why do moms think it is okay to give children pop tarts (dessert) for breakfast. The current advice to loose weight (eat less and exercise more), is not working for a reason. Maybe the reason is that health care professionals are giving the wrong advice. Rather than treating obesity, we should be preventing insulin resistance with better food guidelines and honest recommendations. Thank you so much for posting this article.

  • Fantastic and timely message! Thank you for posting and thank you, Dr. Chan for saying it so bravely.

    I wrote a book -” Just Because You’re An American Doesn’t Mean You Have To Eat Like One!” – (self-explanatory title), out of sheer frustration with the “Big Food” industry. My message was that, in the face of all the sub-standard options out there, Americans need to take control of their food choices for themselves and not listen the media, the government and advertising by “Big Food.”

    I hope THIS speech by Dr. Chan gets the media attention it deserves!

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  • Maureen Beach

    If we want to get serious about reducing complex public health challenges such as obesity, we need to start with education – not laws and regulation. Targeting a single food, beverage or ingredient is not a productive path to promoting healthy lifestyles that balance calories with activity. A recent New York Times article ( emphasizes this point with respect to sugar – saying that of the increasing number of calories being consumed by Americans, calories from sugar play a minor part. The bottom line is all calories count, regardless of their source – and complex conditions won’t be resolved by placing bans and restrictions on one particular product.

    -Maureen Beach, American Beverage Association

  • Suzanne

    Maureen, by accepting a paycheck from the American Beverage Association, you are a part of the problem that the speaker is addressing in this post. I find it offensive that you use this site as yet another opportunity for phony corporate greenwashing on behalf of sugary beverage producers. The readers on this site tend to be sophisticated consumers of public health information, and see right through your slick, phony message. High Fructose Corn Syrup is a MAJOR driver of the obesity epidemic commencing from the 1980’s.

  • Hart Oldenburg

    An introduction with track record is called for my version of killing the food epidemic. Born 88 Years ago in backwoods Germany. Normal youth until being removed from high school into the army. No combat, marching around aimlessly Captures early 1945. Major starvation in Belgium and Scotland. More hunger back in Germany. An education supreme, preparation for food know-how. Higher education impossible.

    Advance to 1991, the pyramid food guide which I defined as food disaster. The makeup of greens and grains the perfect advance for obesity. I was outnumbered (I still am) how can one badmouth broccoli? We know the result, Hart was dead right! But obesity not only survived it gain in proportion.
    I solved obesity, its correction, its prevention. Medical people never made easier cash.
    My point: I am independent, free lance, anti medical theories.
    I am suggesting the dismissal of all nutritional, dietary propaganda, get normal, healthy. I do need support. A step to controlling irresponsible merchant
    I cause health—Hart– Health—

  • Sharon DeMedeiros

    All of the education, exercise programs and dietary changes in the world will do absolutely no good whatsoever if we do not get rid of all the GMOs and toxic chemicals in our food and water. I am convinced that this is behind much of the obesity problems we face today. Even those foods that should be good for us no longer have much nutrient value due to factory farming and the use of pesticides, which are killing the soil. This way of life is no longer sustainable and must end if we are to survive.

  • Sharon DeMedeiros

    And Maurine Beach, you are a liar. Soda is one of the poisons that are a major cause of obesity that we must be rid of if we are to regain our health. And by promoting the lies that you are being paid to promote, you are part of the problem, and will have to answer for your involvement. No amount of money is worth loosing your soul over. If I were you, I would expose the frauds you are working for, or at least walk away from it.

  • Stefania Vezzosi

    In Italy no news about speech of dr. Dr Margaret Chan: a silence that screams!
    Now, her words authoritative, extraordinarily accurate and effective, should obtain ample space and the widest possible dissemination
    Thanks Marion
    Stefania Vezzosi

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  • Oh Maurine, I hope you are reading these comments.

    First, all calories are not created equal. A cup of kale vs a cup of soda are entirely different things! One creates disease (soda) while the other (kale) is a nutrient dense food.

    Second, don’t trade your soul for money.

  • i am so glad many of you spoke up against Maurine – when i read her post i could feel my blood pressure rising – this kind of “crap” is what i must fight every day in my business of herbal medicine, holistic nutrition, personal training and therapeutic essential oils therapies. i teach and help people one at a time, but the number of people that need help are far too many and there are far too few of us health conscious individuals trying to educate them – plus the fact that the BIG foods industry has so much money backing their massive advertisements brainwashing people daily … i am glad to do my part in helping my family and anyone else interested in really doing something good for themselves…i know i will never win the war, but i revel in the small victories!

  • It’s also amusing that Maureen Beach is director of communications for ABA. (

    You might think someone with that level of responsibility for Big Soda’s lobbying arm would realize that posting such an insipid comment on Marion Nestle’s blog wouldn’t exactly get a positive reaction. Is this really what she is getting paid for, trolling the internet?

  • Thanks for sharing such good post. The food standard should be maintained the fast foods centers and any other food corners for the good health of the peoples.

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  • Obesity is clearly classifiable as an industrial disease, caused by food industries world-wide, and it is the public duty of every single health specialist to shame and blame this ‘food poisoning’ on a global scale. Recent research has shown with MRI scan evidence that any food , liquid or or solid, laden with an excessive amounts of highly calorific sugar, fat, and salt is highly addictive, and ,within hours, damages the metabolic appetite control center in the brain.
    It is therefore in the public interest for any government to stop this highly lucrative global drug trade organized by trans-national food industries.
    The fact that governments are getting revenues from addictive merchandise ( like from Big Tobacco) should not impede their action against this new, food – linked, drug mafia! In any country now, the disease industry masquerading as ‘health’ industry, is the biggest growth industry, owing this growth factor to the biggest-selling items in any supermarket in the world: addicitve soda and cigarettes. Food for thought indeed!

  • Kandiah S

    It is the best known fact that the food is the medicine for all in the future. Organically grown, balanced diet prevent many diseases and may cure some of the diseases too. Exercise and diet need to be mandated by WHO as essential components of health. Income decides the type of food an individual consumes. Food security!!!

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  • Michael Holding

    It sounds good to hear that world health organization has taken steps towards the food industry so as to develop and maintain the food quality.Thanks for such a nice post.

    Genetic ID

  • DWS

    I agree education is very important, and part of that education should be exposing industry fraud and paid shills such as yourself, who promote this fraud as though it is science – just like the tobacco industry did for decades at the expense of millions of shortened lives. You should be ashamed of yourself, just like every politician and government agency executive who supports other harmful products such as GMOs, chemical food additives and harmful agri-chemicals etc, on the back of a fat cheque from the industry – all of you will be remembered with shame by your future decendants when the truth is finally exposed. You can lie and deny the truth until your teeth fall out, but the truth is always there, waiting to come back and kick you when you are down.