The UN meeting room was filled to capacity on September 22 with political leaders, senior diplomats, UN officials, foundation staff and corporate executives. They had come to mark the first anniversary of “Scaling Up Nutrition” (SUN), a UN multi-stakeholder-partnership aiming at better health through targeted food programs. Host Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary General, expressed gratitude to private sector companies for their “leadership” in the SUN project, which operates in twenty-one developing countries including Nepal, Niger, Mozambique and Guatemala. But ironically the corporate partners - notably snack and soft drink giant PepsiCo – have remarkably poor records on consumer health.
Over the years, major food companies have engaged in misleading advertising and promotion of products that are downright unhealthy. They have targeted young consumers and promoted a “snack” culture that undermines regular, healthy meals. They have used unsustainable production methods and sometimes child labor. The industry wants to erase these unfavorable images and to create a positive and nutritious narrative.
Dr. Mehmood Khan, head of PepsiCo’s new “Global Nutrition” subsidiary, told the UN gathering that he wants to expand the sales of his fledgling unit to $30 billion annually, through a focus on nutrition. Khan and his “global team of experts” are working on “product innovation” and one such project ambitiously targets young “pre-pre-natal” women, supposedly in order to promote healthy babies later. However, nutrition scientists point out that PepsiCo’s products will replace traditional, locally grown foods that are healthier and cheaper. Pepsi currently sells $30 billion worldwide in sugary soft drinks like Pepsi Cola and Gatorade - and salty, fatty snacks such as Frito Lay potato chips. These products are meticulously engineered and branded to attract and hold consumers, promoting unhealthy eating habits and soaking up scarce food budgets among many of the world’s poorest people.
Dr. Khan, who is also PepsiCo’s Chief Scientific Officer, announced that his company has developed a pilot product for sale in India - a snack that is fortified with protein, iron, and other nutrients. Pepsi has been selling the snack for two rupees (about four US cents) and the company has found that forty percent of the target market purchased the snack and twenty percent made a repeat purchase. He did not offer information on improvement in hunger and nutrition among target Indian consumers. PepsiCo, he announced, is looking to partner further with governments, development agencies and the private sector to expand sales of the product. Dr. Khan, a former lead physician at the Mayo Clinic, acknowledged that most of PepsiCo’s current products are not nutritious. He affirmed, however, that the company is now committed to future markets in nutritious – or at least less mal-nutritious – products.
A representative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation also spoke at the event, emphasizing that the majority of the world eats foods produced by the private sector, hence Gates’ interest in partnership with private companies. In fact, small family farmers produce a large majority of the world’s food, a point that policy experts often make but that corporate gatherings studiously avoid.
Much of the remainder of the discussion was empty rhetoric and self-congratulation. A UK representative said that London is planning to increase its development aid funds for seventeen countries and “scale up” research. An official from Canada announced that a large portion of Ottawa’s food security plan is focused on getting “the right food to the right people in the right time.” A World Bank representative said that the Bank is seeking improved nutrition lending through a “multi-sector approach.” “There has been extraordinary progress,” said an enthusiastic UN official. US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton called on the international community to “keep working together.” Everyone seemed to agree with the dubious notion that PepsiCo and its private sector partners would help solve the world’s crisis of malnutrition.
To view a UN News article highlighting the meeting, click here.
Picture Credit: wfp.org