Friday, 4 February 2011

Fears over industry influence in proposed new WHO global health forum

Dr Lida Lhotska (Regional Coordinator for the International Baby Food Action Network) has been campaigning on infant and young child nutrition for 20 years.

From 17-25 January 2011 I attended the annual World Health Organization (WHO) Executive Board (EB) meeting in Geneva on behalf of Consumers International (CI) with three other members of IBFAN’s staff, Rebecca Norton, Nahed Ismail and Patti Rundall.

We submitted statements calling for principles contained in the Global Strategy on Infant and Young Child Feeding to be observed as we were concerned about the potential expansion of the role of the baby food industry into the policy setting sphere with a new implementation plan on infant and young child nutrition being developed by WHO. 

It was with concern that we read in the report to the EB on future financing of the WHO by that organisation’s Director General (DG), Dr Margaret Chan, of the proposal for a new Global Health Forum.  The proposal was repeated in Dr Chan’s PowerPoint presentation given during a debate on future funding.  The new forum is designed to bring together Member States, global health funds, development banks, partnerships, non-governmental organisations, civil society organisations, and the private sector to address issues critical to global health.

The DG said that the idea for the forum had come from member states and from civil society.  I find it hard to imagine that the private sector was not a very strong advocate for the idea. As a campaigner on infant and young child nutrition, I am all too aware of the dangers of allowing the private sector a hand in shaping policy.  The potential for conflicts of interest is vast and self-evident. 

In many countries, the food industry is keen to fund education, specifically seeking out children, teenage girls and young mothers.  While some governments may welcome such assistance, they should be reminded that there is no such thing as a free lunch. ‘Education’ is all too often used by industry as a subtle and pervasive form of marketing to build trust and to promote fortified foods and supplements as well as foods high in sugar, salt and fat to children.

An interesting example comes from Russia, where NestlĂ© is pushing chocolate. The company’s ‘Programme about Correct Nutrition - working notebook for school children’ has been used in thousands of schools in Russia. Among other images it shows a mother telling her child that eating chocolate rather than a sandwich before an exam will help her manage the difficult exercises. So what exactly is this NestlĂ© message about? -  the more chocolate you eat the cleverer you will be?Since few governments have legislation to control health and nutrition claims, the door is left wide open for these market-led strategies leading to dependence on unnecessary products and undermining of sustainable local healthy feeding practices and skills.The Global Health Forum is due to have its first trial run as a one-day meeting linked to the WHO NCD meeting in April in Moscow. A concrete proposal will be submitted to the World Health Assembly in 2011 and if approved, the mechanism could go forward for 2012. We will be watching the process very closely.

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