Breaking away from bad science? Mars to leave ILSI in transparency bid

By Niamh Michail

- Last updated on GMT

Mars says it plans to leave ILSI by the end of 2018.   © GettyImages/MagicColors
Mars says it plans to leave ILSI by the end of 2018. © GettyImages/MagicColors

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Mars plans to quit industry-funded science group, the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), and says it will support research regardless of results after making its science policy public.

It has been hailed as “big news​” by consumer interest groups but it remains to be seen whether other manufacturers will follow.

The manufacturer of M&Ms, Mars, Wrigley’s gum, Dolmio and Uncle Ben’s, this week published its science policy in a bid to increase trust and transparency, and said it intends to leave the ILSI by the end of 2018.

In the policy, which can be read in full here​, ​It promises to freely publish research findings regardless of the nature of the outcomes, fully disclose any potential conflicts of interest and ensure that funding is not linked to achievement of a specific research outcome.

We do not want to be involved in advocacy-led studies that so often, and mostly for the right reasons, have been criticised,”​ said vice president of public affairs Matthias Berninger, reported in Reuters​.

The food giant has a history of distancing itself from ILSI, which is funded by 400-plus corporate members including Nestle, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Arla and PepsiCo and the suppliers Cargill, Chr Hansen, DuPont, ADM and Tereos.

In 2016, the Washington-based lobby group published a scientific review, which concluded that evidence in favour of guidelines recommending limits on added dietary sugar was “low quality” ​and did not “meet criteria for trustworthy recommendations​”.

Although Mars criticised the study – Berninger said at the time it created more doubt for consumers rather than helping them make better food choices – the firm remained a member of ILSI.

Executive director of ILSI North America Eric Hentges said it was disappointed Mars had decided to leave but hoped it would "again be part of the ILSI community in the future"​. Previous Mars employees have held senior positions at ILSI, including president and board officer. 

"Mars’ staff has provided significant leadership in our organization up to the present and have been extensively involved over the past ten years in the development of our scientific integrity programs, of which Mr. Berninger seems to be unaware,"​ Hentges told FoodNavigator. ​ 

"The myriad of academic, government and industry scientists that make up the ILSI family would not have contributed to our 40 years of success if they did not believe in our integrity."

Will other firms follow?

sugar tax Droits d'auteur elenachaykina
© iStock/elenachaykina

Reacting to the ILSI announcement, Martin Pigeon, a researcher and campaigner at non-profit industry watchdog Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), said it was "rather big news”. ​ 

With its decision to leave ILSI and this public acknowledgement that ILSI's work is more corporate lobbying than science, Mars finally tells it like it is,” ​he said.

In terms of its significance, it also remains to be seen whether other food companies will follow Mars’ lead and leave the ILSI.

So far, most are keeping quiet. FoodNavigator contacted some of ILSI’s high profile members including Unilever, Nestlé, Danone, Mondelez and DSM and received no response.

Camille Perrin, senior food policy officer at European consumer rights association BEUC, also welcomed the announcement. “Evidence shows that industry-sponsored research often favours the interests of the sponsor, either by design or because of publication bias. Industry’s involvement in research activities must be fully transparent as, just like Mars put it quite bluntly, studies can be ‘advocacy-led’,” ​she said.

Criticism over biased science backed by the food industry has been on the rise, leading to parallels between ‘Big Food’ and ‘Big Tobacco’.

Historical documents published in JAMA two years ago revealed how the US sugar lobby paid for influential research​ in the 1960s to downplay the link between sugar and coronary heart disease, instead pointing the finger at fat.

While Mars intends to leave ILSI, it remains a member of US trade group the National Confectioners Association (NCA). In 2014 it published a study​ arguing that the average US consumer could continue his or her usual confectionery intake without an increased risk of weight gain and cardiovascular disease.

The study is regularly promoted by the NCA on its social media channels.

Restoring public trust

conflict of interest, bias, lobbying, mistrust, Michail_Petrov-96
© GettyImages/Petrov-96

In any case, Perrin said it would take more than this week's announcement to address public distrust in food science. "Part of [the distrust] stems from the fact that industry-funded studies are often not made public to protect trade secrets,” ​she said.

Both Pigeon and Perrin agree that only independent, publicly funded research will be able to restore consumer faith.

For Pigeon, it's not just about scientific integrity moving forward but also cleaning up the “toxic legacy of flawed risk assessment methodologies​ [left behind by ILSI] and currently in use at the global level”.

Policy makers in Europe are showing interest. The European Commission has said increased transparency of EU food risk assessment is a priority – a public consultation on how to achieve this​ is currently open until 20 March -  and this week national food safety authorities from all member states and EFSA called for more public investment in food safety research.

There is a compelling case to be built for public funding in food safety research,”​ said EFSA’s chief Bernhard Url. “We must not forget that research […] ultimately feeds into the risk assessments that we carry out at an EU level, which are the basis for public health policies in Europe.”

The end of the affair?

Mars' public parting from ILSI could also be seen as a wider trend for some big manufacturers to distance themselves from conservative trade groups and lobbies. 

Campbell Soup, Nestlé, Dean Foods, Tyson Foods, Unilever and Mars have all left US trade association, the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) in recent months.

According to Perrin, this is not just about transparency but also "acknowledging evolving consumer expectations and taking steps to meet them, rather than systematically oppose them".

"For instance, in the EU, we [BEUC] co-signed letters with some food multinationals to call on the European Commission to establish nutrient profiles and come forward with a binding limit on trans fats. But even these fast-movers still have some way to go," ​she said, adding that their position on issues such as marketing to children and simplified nutrition labelling was no benefit to public health.

To read BEUC's open letters and see which companies signed them click here for trans fats ​and here for nutrient profiles​.

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