May 15, 2020

Demanding answers from Big Soda

ILSI report cover

Shareholder meeting season is fully underway. It’s the time of the year when corporations seek to put their best foot forward, boasting to investors about market growth and bragging about their charitable contributions to the media—all while trying to avoid the truth behind their abusive practices.

These gatherings are a fertile ground for speaking truth to power. Corporations’ entire boards, shareholder communities, executive leadership, and the public are listening to what corporate executives claim to have accomplished over the year. As the world grapples with the COVID-19 pandemic—where obesity and other diet-related diseases are emerging as major risk factors for becoming severely ill from COVID-19—it’s more important than ever to hold corporations accountable for the devastation their products, reckless marketing, and covert political interference are causing to the health and well-being of communities across the world.

Public health advocates demand transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic

In the last month, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have hosted virtual shareholders’ meetings to tout their success over the past year, while highlighting grand-sounding plans to curb climate change and plastic pollution, among other issues. On the other hand, these corporations are quite diligently trying to convince governments across the world to position their products as ‘essential services’ during the pandemic—the same junk food products that have fueled a global epidemic of diet-related diseases for decades, contributing to unprecedented rates of diabetes and obesity globally.

With COVID-19 shifting in-person shareholder advocacy, transnational corporations have gained a significant leeway to regulate questions from civil society on transparency vis-à-vis lobbying and political interference, as well as funding of junk science and greenwashing practices. But alongside our allies, we showed up at these virtual gatherings to demand full transparency about the impact of Big Soda’s products on health and nutrition science.  We exposed the ways in which industry interferes globally with public health policies meant to protect people, such as the funding of the questionable industry group, International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which continues to influence policies in India, Mexico, Argentina, and right here in the United States.

With our partner, Harrington Investments, we secured three shareholder resolutions focused on sugar and public health at the 2020 shareholders’ meetings for Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and PepsiCo.

With the support of our members, public health advocates, and allies around the world, we did not let Big Soda’s abuses go unquestioned, and we held these industry leaders accountable for exploiting the pandemic for their own profit.

At the Coca-Cola shareholders’ meeting, we partnered with Ray Rogers, our ally and founder of the Campaign to Stop Killer Coke, a worldwide movement that has exposed Coca-Cola’s labor, human rights, and environmental abuses for almost two decades. Rogers highlighted the corporation’s toxic influence on nutrition and public health research around the globe through ILSI. Rogers cited findings from our recent report, “Partnership for an Unhealthy Planet,” which reveals Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s harmful impact on global nutrition research and public health policies vis à vis ILSI.

A week later, Dr. Yolandra Hancock, a D.C.-based public health advocate with the #DontMuteMyHealth campaign, a pediatrician by training, and a compelling speaker on the issues of sugar and its role in disease causation, introduced a similar resolution on the shareholder ballot at Coca-Cola’s meeting. Dr. Hancock delivered a stirring, personal plea to PepsiCo about the devastating impacts Big Soda has on children’s health in Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) communities. Drawing on her experience as a pediatrician, she recalled the day when she diagnosed a little girl with type 2 diabetes, soon after she lost her father to the same disease. As the young girl and her grandmother—also diabetic—received the diagnosis, Dr. Hancock watched the girl pull out a soda.

The resolution demanded that PepsiCo publicly and independently address its public health harm, especially with regard to children, as well as its mounting liability for fueling a global diet-related disease epidemic. The resolution received enough votes (around 11%) to be reintroduced next year—which means that the issues we’ve raised aren’t going away for PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, or the broader industry.

False promises, questionable solutions from CEOs

In the face of widespread criticism from health advocates around the world and Dr. Hancock’s heartbreaking account, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo continue to position themselves as players in the global nutrition arena, despite their role in interfering with public health policies from the U.S. to India.

Coca-Cola’s Chairman and CEO, James Quincey, boasted about the company’s progress in 2019 to remove 350,000 tons of added sugar on 275 product reformulations, its continuous roll-out of mini cans to encourage portion control, and its goal to develop the “next generation of sugar alternatives.”

Echoing Quincey, PepsiCo CEO, Ramon Laguarda, discussed PepsiCo’s long-term strategy for sugar reduction, including beverage reformulations, no- and low-sugar products, and marketing practices that “adhere to strict internal policies and industry standards.”

However, the changes boasted by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo do not add up to the recommendations that public health advocates deem critical. It is recommended that people consume less than 10 percent (approximately 46 grams of sugar, based on 2,000 calories) of their total daily calories, from added sugars. But one can of Coca-Cola or a can of Pepsi take up almost all of the daily recommended calories for an adult. And even with PepsiCo and Coca-Cola’s move to reduce added sugar, both companies continue to spend millions of its advertising budget to systematically target Black and Latinx youth, disproportionately affecting the health and wellbeing of BIPOC communities.

Moreover, neither Coca-Cola nor PepsiCo mentions or acknowledges the full impact of their funding of junk science and meddling with public health policy through industry lobby groups like ILSI and the American Beverage Association, among many others.

Since its founding in 1978 by a former Coca-Cola executive, ILSI has crippled progress on nutrition policy across the globe. With 15 affiliates spanning from Brazil to India to Taiwan to the United States, ILSI’s deep global connections with the food and beverage industry have skewed nutrition research and given corporate executives access to key policymaking spaces and decision-makers.

For example, more than half of those appointed to the United States 2020 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC)—a group of scientists and health professionals that provides recommendations to shape the final 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA)—have ties to ILSI and its corporate backers. And more than 75% of the Committee has troubling ties across the food and beverage industry. ILSI’s strategy for engaging with industry is epitomized by ILSI Mexico. The affiliate recently merged with ILSI Mesoamerica, which for years has been led by Coca-Cola executives who have challenged public health policies, including repealing Mexico’s sugar-sweetened beverage tax. ILSI has also supported several nutrition research studies with Oxford University Press, and has a pattern of neither fully nor transparently disclosing its ties to the industry.

To Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Big Soda: Put ILSI on ice!

With millions of lives adversely impacted by Big Soda, corporations like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo can no longer hide from accountability for their longstanding abuses. In fact, in just two weeks, over 70,000 people have demanded Coca-Cola halt all funding and break ties with ILSI as a first step towards stopping interference in our policies and support of junk science.

We echo Dr. Yolandra Hancock’s statement: “PepsiCo’s actions in the District are galling if not surprising, given PepsiCo’s continued support of groups globally like the International Life Sciences Institute, or ILSI, which stymie public health policy and traffic in junk science. Even the corporation’s competitor Nestlé has parted ways with ILSI. And today tens of thousands of people are calling for PepsiCo to do the same.”

Now is the time for Big Soda to step up and practice what they preach to shareholders. As industry leaders, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo should immediately disclose all of their political, charitable, and research related giving across the world, stop funding junk science once and for all, and sever ties with entities like ILSI influencing policymaking globally.

During this crucial time, we are carrying this call to all industry leaders. Sign here to demand Big Soda immediately stop influencing global public health policies and nutrition research—once and for all.

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