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

Personal Health

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.

I encountered Yach again in March after I blogged about how Yale Medical School had entered into a partnership with PepsiCo to fund a research lab and fellowship. I was upset both personally and professionally because my public health degree is from Yale.

I read the news in my alumni magazine, which included a photo of smiling Yale faculty members and PepsiCo executives, including Yach. The morning after my blog posting, I got an email from Yach. It seemed he wanted to explain himself to me and defend PepsiCo in the process. But even after a 30-minute phone call, I remained unconvinced that his role at PepsiCo was anything more than a well-orchestrated PR move to position the company as being on the cutting edge of health and nutrition.

PepsiCo has placed other health experts on its payroll for similar reasons.

Just a few months after Yach was hired, PepsiCo tapped Dr. Mehmood Kahn also for the newly created position of "Chief Scientific Officer." Here is how Yach described Kahn in a 2008 talk at Yale, to make the point that PepsiCo is serious about doing legitimate research:

[Kahn] like me comes from a medical background. Born in Pakistan, trained in England, a few years at the Mayo Clinic where he was involved in heading endocrinology and metabolic research and then headed Takeda Pharmaceuticals Worldwide R&D for a number of years, before coming to PepsiCo.

Kahn also served as division chief of endocrinology, metabolism and nutrition at the University of Minnesota Medical School.

But PepsiCo didn't stop there. PepsiCo plucked its latest plum from the tried and true depository of scientific experts: the U.S. government. In late 2009, Dr. George Mensah became PepsiCo's "Director of Heart Health and Global Health Policy." Previously, Dr. Mensah (a native of Ghana) spent nearly a decade with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, helping lead the federal agency's efforts to fight strokes, heart attacks, heart disease and colorectal cancer. But his government career got trumped by Cheetos.

In a May interview, Dr. Mensah explained his decision to work for PepsiCo: "The real role we play is to use the best science available to make sure everything we do supports our customers. I don't feel like I've left public health." And why should he, when he's surrounded by other doctors? Great strategy: Create a research environment so scientists don't feel out of place at the corporate HQ of sugar, salt and fat.

It's also no accident that all three hires have significant international experience and are not natives of the U.S. A global corporation for years, PepsiCo is increasingly expanding into the developing world. Last year, the company surpassed Nestlé in India sales.

To recap: Since 2007, PepsiCo has hired at least three noted international experts in medicine, science and public health. Their pedigrees span the world's premier public health organization, America's top public health governmental agency and the most respected medical and research academic institutions. Not bad HR recruitment.

According to an article published earlier this year in Business Week ("Pepsi Brings in the Health Police") over the past two years, PepsiCo has hired a dozen physicians and PhDs. What are they up to exactly? Kahn explains that the goal is "to create healthy options while making the bad stuff less bad."

In my interview with Yach in March, he used similar corporate-speak. The example he uses is how the R&D team is hard at work trying to make Cheetos lower in fat and sodium, with smaller portion sizes. He predicts that within five years, the product's artificial coloring will be gone. But does any of this matter? Should people be eating such pseudo-foods in the first place? Yach rationalizes in his response: "While we are not likely to become a fresh fruit and vegetable company, we have made public commitments to increase the use of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains in our products. A major challenge involves ensuring that we do so in ways that maximizes the full nutritional equivalence of whole foods in our future products."

Full nutritional equivalence? I don't recall seeing that in the U.S. dietary recommendations: "Eat foods with full nutritional equivalence." But what else can you aspire to when your food products don't fit into any actual food groups?

Just where is all this alleged desire to improve the product portfolio coming from? Dr. Mensah waxes sentimental about PepsiCo's CEO (which Yach does as well):

It's coming from the very very top. Indra Nooyi, if you didn't know her, you would think she was a public health specialist. There is real passion at the top. ... Indra Nooyi wants PepsiCo to be part of the solution.

Of course she does, because otherwise she'd be part of the problem.

CEO Indra Nooyi Inserts PR into Annual Obesity Report

CEO Nooyi has certainly made her intentions to position PepsiCo in the midst of the nation's discourse about obesity loud and clear. In addition to her hiring spree and endless speeches on the corporate "Performance with Purpose" tag line, Nooyi recently succeeded in infiltrating one of the nation's most respected annual reports on obesity.

For the past seven years, a nonprofit called Trust for American's Health (TFAH) has published a report called F as in Fat, which updates the grim obesity statistics from around the nation, culling information mostly from respectable government sources.

In this year's edition, released in June, smack in the middle of the sobering data and potential policy solutions came an unexpected new entry: a two-page missive penned by Indra Nooyi herself. As you might expect, it reads more like a press release than scientific analysis: "We firmly believe companies have a responsibility to provide consumers with more information and more choices so they can make better decisions," Nooyi wrote.

Even more troubling, this report is co-published by its funder, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the nation's largest health care foundation. One of RWJF's most ambitious goals is to "reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by 2015."

So how did the nation's largest health care funder and a prominent public health organization let the nation's largest food company get airtime in their annual obesity report? Good question.

Reporter Melanie Warner, who published an excellent piece about this at BNET ("Obesity Report Chronicles the Sad State of America -- and Tells Us How Great PepsiCo Is"), asked TFAH to explain itself. Here is what she learned:

Laura Segal, spokesperson for the Trust for America's Health, says that having Nooyi's comments in the report was an innocent attempt to have the "industry perspective" and not the result of any shady financial relationship. "We reached out to a number of companies and Pepsi was the first one to respond. We want to represent a range of opinions and the industry segment is a significant component of dealing with obesity," says Segal.

In contrast, Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, sees this incident as part of a disturbing trend:

There seems to be a growing interest among public health organizations to appear "unbiased" when discussing obesity prevention by providing a forum for industry. It would be the equivalent of providing a forum for the tobacco industry to espouse their "personal responsibility" message in reports on smoking-related deaths.

Harold Goldstein also notes what Nooyi conveniently left out:

She doesn't mention the highly sophisticated multimillion dollar national marketing and lobbying campaign they have undertaken to promote themselves as good corporate citizens and undermine efforts to establish state and local policies to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, which have been the single leading contributor to the obesity epidemic.

In other words, when food companies such as PepsiCo (even when speaking through their own scientific experts) opine on a major public health problem, we are not about to hear the entire story, but rather one filtered through the corporate agenda, which by definition must promote its bottom line, and thus omit the less flattering aspects.

Finally, Marion Nestle had this to say:

By this time, research has clearly demonstrated that partnerships and alliances of health organizations with food companies benefit the food companies far more than the health organizations. The goals of public health and food companies differ. Food companies enter such alliances for public relations and to deflect public attention from the need to regulate their marketing practices.

That is why no matter how many MDs or PhDs the company hires, PepsiCo should never be looked to as an expert on anything other than what it does best: marketing and selling highly processed food and beverage products to the world.

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