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How Junk Food Giant PepsiCo Is Buying Up High-Ranking Experts to Look Like a Leader in Health and Nutrition

Pepsi's strategy: Create a research environment so scientists and public health experts don't feel out of place at the corporate HQ of sugar, salt and fat.

Last month PepsiCo set off a firestorm among angry bloggers when the company attempted to buy its way onto the popular ScienceBlogs (run by Seed Media Group) with its own offering called Food Frontiers. Apparently, the actual scientists didn't appreciate having their space invaded by PR flaks. One blogger put it succinctly, "I don't care how many PhD scientists they hire, PepsiCo is a corporation, not a research institute, for crissakes!" Within two days, ScienceBlogs apologized and pulled PepsiCo's plug, but not before some disgusted bloggers quit altogether. (Food Frontiers continues to live on PepsiCo's corporate Web site.)

While this story illustrates a victory in the battle against one corporation's attempt to control scientific discourse, in the bigger picture, PepsiCo appears to be winning the war.

PepsiCo Picks off Public Health Experts One by One

Ask anyone who's been in the public health field for at least 10 years if they've heard of Derek Yach, and the response is likely to be: "Of course, he's a public health hero." If you ask for a response to Yach's decision to go work for PepsiCo, the reaction will be head-shaking. "Shocked," "deeply disappointed," "a blow to public health," were all phrases I heard when the news came, in 2007, that one of the world's most respected public health experts went over to the dark side.

Derek Yach's story even plays a prominent part in a graduate-level food policy class at NYU that dedicates an entire class session to industry co-optation, because of its current impact on the nation's debate over the obesity epidemic.

It was a personnel coup for the nation's largest food company and purveyor of such notoriously unhealthy products as Mountain Dew and Cheetos. PepsiCo's new "director of global health policy" came with a pedigree the company must have been salivating over.

A native of South Africa where he did his medical training, Yach established the Center for Epidemiologic Research at the South African Medical Research Council. But he earned his global health hero reputation as Representative of the Director General at the World Health Organization. There, he helped cement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an unprecedented global treaty that pitted Yach against the world's most powerful tobacco industry leaders.

While at WHO, Yach also became embroiled in food issues, at times finding himself at odds with Big Food. I first interviewed Yach back in 2004 for an article about how the United States government was obstructing a critical WHO document on nutrition policy and was impressed with his straight-shooting style. Indeed, his willingness to speak out about food politics ultimately led to his downfall at WHO, which only furthered his public health hero status to the rest of us.

Ironically, though, it was when he later joined Kelly Brownell's team at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University that things went downhill. Yach left Rudd for a brief stint at the Rockefeller Foundation before joining PepsiCo in 2007.

New York University Professor Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics, offers her take on what happened:

I first met Derek Yach when he was a public health hero at WHO for his efforts to get food companies to stop marketing junk foods to kids and to stop lobbying against proposed WHO advice to restrict sugars. He lost on both counts, but not for lack of trying. He must have decided that outside advocates can't get anywhere with food companies and that change has to come from within. I'm dubious that meaningful changes from within are possible for a company that makes most of its money selling sodas and potato chips, but that's just me.

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