KONGWhile the World Health Organization plays a front-line role in the
war on severe acute respiratory syndrome, it is coming under sustained attack in
Washington from American industry, a sign that the UN health agency may end up
fighting vested interests throughout the developed world long after SARS has
become a minor scourge.
If American processed-food industries get
their way, U.S. funding for WHO and another UN agency, the Food and Agriculture
Organization, or FAO, will be cut by Congress on account of a blunt draft report
by a joint panel of experts that blames excessive intake of fats, salt and added
sugar for a worldwide epidemic of chronic diseases.
A complaint by the Sugar Association to
Health Secretary Tommy Thompson received written backing from an organization
representing other sugar-using food industries and from two senators, Larry
Craig, Republican of Idaho, and John Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana. A letter to
the WHO director-general, Gro Harlem Brundtland, threatened pressure to end U.S.
funding for WHO and FAO if the draft report were not withdrawn.
"We will exercise every avenue available
to expose the dubious nature of the 'Diet, Nutrition and the Prevention of
Chronic Diseases' report," the Sugar Association letter to Brundtland read,
"including asking congressional appropriators to challenge future funding of the
U.S.'s $406 million contributions (including both regular and voluntary funding)
to the WHO. Taxpayers' dollars should not be used to support misguided,
non-science-based reports which do not add to the health and well-being of
Americans … These same funding considerations will also be directed at FAO."
Brundtland resisted and the report is
expected to be officially unveiled Wednesday.
The Sugar Association has accused the
report, which recommends that not more than 10 percent of a diet should come
from added sugars, of being "dubious" and not subject to rigorous scientific
review. In fact this level of added sugars is already recommended by authorities
in several countries, including Britain and the Netherlands.
This may seem a small matter. But it
looks like an early skirmish in a long war between those concerned with global
public health and a wide range of processed food industries. Intervention by the
United States and other governments largely stymied a 1990 effort to rein in
Given what has happened to tobacco, the
food industry now looks to face tougher opposition. But many of its members seem
as much in denial of the truth about causes of chronic disease as China's former
health minister, fired on Sunday after WHO's criticism of Beijing's commitment
to dealing with SARS.