When the Indian government bowed to powerful food companies last year and postponed its decision to put red warning labels on unhealthy packaged food, officials also sought to placate critics of the delay by creating an expert panel to review the proposed labeling system, which would have gone far beyond what other countries have done in the battle to combat soaring obesity rates.
But the man chosen to head the three-person committee, Dr. Boindala Sesikeran, a veteran nutritionist and former adviser to Nestle, only further enraged health advocates.
That’s because Dr. Sesikeran is a trustee of the International Life Sciences Institute, an American nonprofit with an innocuous sounding name that has been quietly infiltrating government health and nutrition bodies around the world.
Created four decades ago by a top Coca-Cola executive, the institute now has branches in 17 countries. It is almost entirely funded by Goliaths of the agribusiness, food and pharmaceutical industries.
The organization, which championed tobacco interests during the 1980s and 1990s in Europe and the United States, has more recently expanded its activities in Asia and Latin America, regions that provide a growing share of food company profits. It has been especially active in China, India and Brazil, the world’s first, second and sixth most populous nations.
In China, the institute shares both staff and office space with the agency responsible for combating the country’s epidemic of obesity-related illness. In Brazil, ILSI representatives occupy seats on a number of food and nutrition panels that were previously reserved for university researchers.
And in India, Dr. Sesikeran’s leadership role on the food labeling committee has raised questions about whether regulators will ultimately be swayed by processed food manufacturers who say the red warning labels would hurt sales.
“What could possibly go wrong?” Amit Srivastava, the coordinator of the advocacy group India Resource Center, asked sarcastically. “To have a covert food lobby group deciding public health policy is wrong and a blatant conflict of interest.”