Given the extensive interest these days about how public health decision-makers are being influenced by the soda industry, we decided to take a more systematic look at what institutions and people have close ties to the industry, and what sorts of relationships they have. It is no longer a secret that the Pan American Health Organization, a regional office of World Health Organization, accepts money from the Coca- Cola Company, PepsiCo, Kraft, Nestle, and Unilever. Similarly, some members of the WHO’s Nutrition Guidance Expert Advisory Group have food industry ties, particularly in the form of receiving funding. But who else in the public sphere of governance is linked to “Big Soda”, and how?
We used the NNDB Mapper software (which we previously used to catalog relationships among major global health donors—see our paper in PLoS Medicine) to understand what kinds of linkages exist among prominent institutions, individuals, and major soda companies. The major relationships we looked into and isolated were those that involved corporate board memberships, though it’s also possible to look at direct financial relationships (e.g., donor-recipient) and private political or social clubs as well. The less controlled aspect is that we can’t define individuals included in the NNDB Mapper—institutions or individuals that have been featured in major Internet-archived news outlets are added to the database, and there are no filters on this aspect of the search.
To pick the key soda companies of interest, we used the industry’s own Global Market Information Database to find those companies that were largest in terms of overall worldwide sales of soda per capita. We constructed the next several graphs from that primary data:
For those of you who like to be precise, we’re referring here to “non-diet, non-alcoholic carbonated sugar- or fructose-sweetened non-fruit-juice beverages” (i.e., what those in the Midwest call “pop”). Most of this stuff is now sold outside of the United States, interestingly:
And when we look at the major linkages (financial, political, and social) between the major soda corporations, their boards members/top executives, and other prominent folks in government and the public sphere, we see a rather extensive set of linkages for many companies—that is, they’re highly connected to everything from school boards to the United Nations (perhaps not surprising to the jaded among us):
Some prominent cases are particularly apparent in the Coca-Cola executive board. New York City Schools Chancellor Cathleen Black appears to have a remarkable history of relationships between both the school system and the soda company, as recently reviewed elsewhere. There are a few former Senators, Cabinet Secretaries, and Ambassadors on the diagram above; some prominent members of the global health policy scene (members of the Gates Foundation) and former leaders of Latin American and Eastern European governments; and perhaps most interestingly a lot of active service industry conglomerates who would use Coca-Cola products are also on the board.
A similar pattern was observed even more prominently with PepsiCo, who actually had more sitting members on its board who are also active key executives in sales at major retail outlets or restaurants such a Wal-Mart and Burger King (of course Yum Brands also commands KFC and Pizza Hut itself):
Pepsi has some health-related board members such as the former President of the Ford Foundation and CEO of the Duke Health System on its board. We were somewhat bemused that Caspar Weinberger was on the board until his death (he was a defense man and military contracting expert involved in the Iran-Contra affair…which makes it a bit unclear what role he played on the executive board of a soda company). There are also several media-related members including top executives at Sun-Times and the New York Times.
Overall, the most interesting finding was that a lot of executive board members are…well…professional board members, it seems. Several people seem to be on the board of numerous companies simultaneously, and serve on many public boards as well. The PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi, for example, is also on the board of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. The senior VP Larry Thompson also appears to be on the Board of Directors for the National Center for State Courts. Nearly every name was on at least two other boards, with several people on over 10 boards, many of them public foundations or government organizations. Many individuals were also connected to the recent Romney campaign (via standard donations or political action committees) but a few were related to the Obama campaign as well.
Danone was similar but Nestle was a bit more enigmatic. Very little information was available on its board via the NNDB software, apart from its CEO, who is again on many other prominent company boards:
The board members appeared elusive to standard news archive searches. When we individually searched the backgrounds of the key board members, we found they were also prominent members of other boards, including banks and oil companies, but also interestingly included Ann Veneman, the former Executive Director of UNICEF and former Secretary of the US Department of Agriculture, which is in charge of supplemental nutrition programs like food stamps.
Looking now at the monetary linkages rather than just the direct board members, we observed that the Coca-Cola companies appears to have four of its own political action committees (PACs) for donating money to political campaigns. They seem to lobby the most against tax legislation, spending about $3.8 million in lobbying but having peaked spending around the time of the “Child Nutrition Promotion and School Lunch Protection Act of 2009”, which would have updated national school nutrition standards but was killed in Congress. Their top political recipients can be found here.
Pepsi has slightly smaller lobbying of $2.2 million this year with 3 PACs, but also provided a parallel peak in 2009 around the time of the school lunch bill. Their top political recipients can be found here.
All in all, the picture is not very surprising, but the linkages at both the executive and political donor level appear to be unsubtle and tie the private sector to the public decision-making sector rather tightly as prominent decisions about soft drink regulation continue to be debated and voted on in the public sphere.