The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) is a nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C. Their mission, according to their website,1 is "to provide science that improves human health and well-being and safeguards the environment."
The organization was founded by Alex Malaspina, a former senior vice president at Coca-Cola Co. and a regulatory affairs leader. While he founded ILSI in 1978, his ties with Coca-Cola were not severed. Coca-Cola awarded scientists the inaugural ILSI Malaspina International Scholars Travel Award in 2015 when Coca-Cola attended the 2015 ILSI annual meeting in Phoenix, Arizona.2
Malaspina continued to work with Coca-Cola as a vice president in Atlanta, Georgia, long after founding ILSI.3 He also served4 as coordinator for new products at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc., and was president of the International Technical Caramel Association,5 a food industry trade group for users and producers of caramel colors.
While often referred to as Dr. Malaspina, he is not a medical doctor. Rather, he earned his doctorate in philosophy in 1955 and was conferred an honorary Ph.D. from the University of Salvador, Argentina.6 In 1994 he received the International Award from the Institute of Food Technologists. The goals of the ILSI are reportedly to bring:7
"… together scientists from government, academia and industry to uphold the scientific integrity and objectivity of nutrition and food safety science so that the resulting data and its applications are used ethically to improve food systems for the betterment of public health."
Study exposes ILSI as shill for multinational food industry
A new study11 based on the organization's internal documents shows ILSI embedded itself in public health panels across Europe and the United Nations in an effort to promote its own industry-focused agenda to raise profits at the expense of public health worldwide.
Sarah Steele, Ph.D., from the department of politics and international studies at the University of Cambridge, led the research published in Globalization and Health. Information in the study is based on documents U.S. Right to Know (USRTK) obtained through state Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.12
USRTK is a nonprofit investigative research group focused on investigating the food industry. Simon Barquera, Ph.D., a consultant for the World Health Organization,13tweeted following the release of the study:14 "Today is #blackmonday for #ILSI an organization that has blocked public health nutrition efforts in Mexico & other countries."
The study found some of the top officials at ILSI were asked to sit on international panels discussing the negative impacts of tobacco, chemicals and sugary foods on individuals, where they used their position to push for more lenient regulations on products that have mountains of scientific evidence proving the impact on health. Lead author Sarah Steele told The Guardian:15
"Our findings add to the evidence that this nonprofit organisation has been used by its corporate backers for years to counter public health policies. ILSI should be regarded as an industry group — a private body — and regulated as such, not as a body acting for the greater good."
Steele and her colleagues read through more than 170,000 pages of emails from 2015 to 2018, finding ILSI received funds from food companies, including Nestle, General Mills, Monsanto and Coca-Cola.16
While the organization publicly denies any involvement in public policy solutions or commercial interests,17 the study uncovered emails from founder Malaspina to executives at Coca-Cola in which he characterized new sugar intake guidelines as a "disaster" for Coke. Emails were uncovered suggesting ILSI protects industry interests, including this one, sent to Suzanne Harris18 at ILSI:19
"Dear Friends, These guidelines are a real disaster! They could eventually affect us significantly in many ways; Soft drink taxations, modified school luncheon programs, a strong educational effort to educate children and adults to significanty limit their sugar intake, curtail advertising of sugary foods and beverages and eventually a great pressure from CDC and other Agencies to force industry to start deducing drastically the sugar we add to processed foods and beverages.
Also we have to expect that many nations will follow the US guidelines. We have to consider how to become ready to mount a strong defence. Warm regards. Alex"
Nonprofit campaigns against public health policy
ILSI has affiliated chapters around the world20 and, in what may seem to be a juxtaposition of ideas, just completed participation in the 6th World Conference on Research Integrity in Hong Kong, China.21 According to the ILSI website:22
"Scientific integrity is fundamental to the mission and work of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Specifically, ILSI North America and its partners throughout the scientific community have been leaders in defining principles, guidelines, and best practices for establishing and maintaining the Integrity of the scientific process when diverse stakeholders collaborate — now ILSI and it's 16 entities are building on this work."
According to documentation, ILSI partners include large food industry giants and agribusinesses intent on promoting the use of chemicals in agriculture and manufacturing. In fact, the study authors wrote the nonprofit is a lobby group promoting the interests of agrichemical industries counter to healthy public policies.23 Co-author Gary Ruskin, co-director of USRTK commented:24
"ILSI is Big Food's global stealth network to defeat scientists, regulators and others who point out the health risks of their products. Big Food wants you to believe that ILSI works for your health, but really it defends food industry profits."
Trustees on the board of ILSI have included representatives from Kellogg's, General Mills, Nestle and Pepsico,25 while Kristin DiNicolantonio, ILSI global communication director, told The Guardian26 they did so "in an individual capacity."
In 2019, some of ILSI's industry board members include representatives from Cargill, Pepsico, Coca-Cola, DuPont, General Mills, ConAgra, Abbott Nutrition and Campbell Soup Co. Even the USDA and CDC are included as "liaisons" to the board.27 In Europe, employees from General Mills, DuPont and Nestle sit on the board.28
The World Health Organization (WHO) was involved in 2016 after ILSI vice president Alan Boobis chaired the meeting to establish public policy on glyphosate. ILSI had taken more than $1 million in donations from Monsanto. WHO cut formal ties with ILSI in 2017.29
In an interesting turnabout, Mars Co. quit ILSI in 2018 and issued a statement explaining:30 "We do not want to be involved in advocacy led studies that so often, and mostly for the right reasons, have been criticized."