May 3, 2002

Legislative Activity


May 3, 2002

The Honorable Tommy G. Thompson
Secretary of Department of Health and Human Services
Hubert H. Humphrey Building
200 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20201

Dear Mr. Secretary:

We are writing to express our concerns about the draft Report of the Joint WHO/FAO Expert Consultation on Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of Chronic Diseases to you and to those in other departments and agencies of the Executive Branch who are responsible for dealing with these policies. Knowing that your agency will be leading the U.S. delegation to the World Health Assembly later this month, we would like to share our concerns with you so that they may be taken into consideration within the interagency process as the U.S. positions are being formulated. If your findings are in accord with ours, we hope that you will inform Director-General Brundtland that the United States believes that this document should be substantially modified before being issued by WHO and the FAO.

The Report purports to address the relationship between diet, nutrition and various non-communicable diseases, and is based on an Expert Consultation that took place in early February in Geneva. We do not disagree that the subject matter of the Report is a serious issue and requires serious study by an organization such as WHO and FAO. However, we believe the lack of transparency in the preparation of the Report, the failure to adhere to sound science, and the extraordinary breadth of the recommendations, raise such important issues that the Report should not be disseminated in its current form. If this were to be done, it would cause significant harm to important segments of the U.S. food industry and to the food industries of developing countries. In addition, release of the current Report would harm the credibility of the global effort to develop sound policies to deal with the link between obesity and chronic disease.

In the first instance, we are greatly concerned about the lack of transparency in the consultation process. The draft Report was distributed for review to the food industry in early April with a request for comments within two weeks. Although additional time has been granted, the extension of time is not adequate to address the many issues raised. Furthermore, it appears that no scientific consultant representing the views and knowledge of industry was invited to participate in the Expert Consultation. Such exclusion is indicative of bias and suggests a predetermined outcome for the consultation. This is inconsistent with the role of the two United Nations standard setting organizations. If the Report is to merit serious consideration, all stakeholders -- including industry -- should have an opportunity to participate fully in the consultation process.

The Report also fails to adhere to a sound science precept. It cites studies that are contrary to other findings or that are of questionable validity. For example, a large body of epidemiological literature shows carbohydrates in general, and added sugars in particular, are not associated with overweight and obesity. Analysis of U.S. Government data and the 1998 FAO/WHO Joint Report on Carbohydrates in Human Nutrition support these findings. However, the study used in the recent Consultation as a basis for the Report's claim that soft drinks are linked to obesity in children has been criticized widely for its protocol limitations and poor quality data, thus limiting the validity of its conclusions.

Of greatest concern, however, is that many of the policy recommendations in the Report have no scientific underpinnings and it appears that no economic or policy experts participated in the Consultation. No evidence is offered that might support the potential effectiveness of the Report's recommendations on marketing restrictions, taxation and subsidy policies. To date, there is no evidence that individual behavior, such as dietary habits, food choices, and the desire to be physically active, can be manipulated by mandates of legislative bodies or coercion by regulators. In fact, actual experience with taxes and subsidies demonstrate that neither are efficient means of achieving the goal of changing food patterns. Taxes frequently have long-term, indirect, and unforeseen effects that are cumbersome and costly to implement. Moreover, there are perverse impacts that contradict the purposes for which they were intended, placing the heaviest burden on the world's subsistence population.

Certain aspects of the draft Report oversimplify food production systems. With regard to food policy, there is no recognition in the Report of the improvements in health of populations as a result of harvesting, storing, preserving, and processing seasonal surpluses of commodities, which are transformed to basic, palatable, nutritious, and affordable foodstuffs by the food industry.

The weakness of the Report's scientific findings combined with unwise social and economic policy recommendations will do little to provide governments with effective means to deal with the global obesity problem. Moreover, the Report recommends involvement of the Codex Alimentarius Commission in the promulgation of its recommendations, and in so doing, proposes a shift in focus well beyond that body's mandate for food safety and in support of fair practices in trade into a political realm.

>As we noted at the outset, we agree that the issues this consultation Report attempts to address are matters of great importance for the global health community. However, the process by which this draft Report and its resulting recommendations have been developed undermine any potential value of the Consultation and the credibility of WHO and FAO. It is critically important for the U.S. Government to make its own assessment of the Report, including the question of whether it is appropriate for WHO and FAO to enter the fields of fiscal, economic and educational policy to the extent they have done in this document. Our view is that this document should be substantially modified before being issued by WHO and the FAO.

We appreciate your consideration of our request and will be happy to provide any additional information that may be helpful in this regard. A copy of this letter is also being provided to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, Secretary of Agriculture Ann M. Veneman, and United States Trade Representative Robert B. Zoellick.

Sincerely yours,

American Advertising Federation
American Association of Advertising Agencies
American Bakers Association
American Feed Industry Association
American Frozen Foods Institute
American Meat Institute
Animal Health Institute
Biotechnology Industry Organization
Consumer Health Care Products Association
Council for Responsible Nutrition
Frozen Potato Products Institute
Grocery Manufacturers of America
International Dairy Foods Association
International Council of Grocery Manufacturers Associations
National Confectioners Association/Chocolate Manufacturers Association
National Council of Chain Restaurants
National Grocers Association
National Restaurant Association
National Soft Drink Association
Snack Food Association
Wheat Foods Council
US Chamber of Commerce
US Council for International Business