When I left the World Health Organization in 2005 for Yale School of Public Health, I thought that I would not have to return to WHO/FAO technical report 916 except to teach aspiring public health students about it. I was so wrong.
The report took two years to complete. Its bland number and boring cover hide the power of its simple messages and the complexity and broad based partnerships it will take to implement them.
It set out to document the optimal diets and level of physical activity populations required to minimize their lifelong risks for a range of chronic diseases such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes. This required bringing together experts from around the world to sift through the cumulative wisdom of many and distill their ideas into a set of science-based nutrient and activity specific conclusions about what we should eat more or less of; and how much physical activity was desirable.
The main messages were not terribly surprising: eat less sugar, salt, saturated fats from red meat and dairy products; eat more fruits, vegetables, fish, nuts, grains and legumes; and be more active. But behind every food group or nutrient the report suggested was needed less of, stood many food companies, industry trade associations and defenders of the status quo. And they were not going to simply accept the recommendations without a mighty fight.
Luckily while the report was moving through the many decision makers’ corridors, an outreach effort was quietly underway between the food industry and WHO. It started gingerly, filled with suspicion on both sides. But is now forming into a mechanism for sustained dialogue and in time, we hope, joint action.
Within PepsiCo, 916 now has been embraced as a critical input into how we define nutrition criteria for all our products-along with a few other core national guidelines. And we know that many other companies and governments are using it as they develop norms for their populations.
Sitting where I do now, it is clear that we could have done so much better at developing actionable norms if the climate for collaboration between WHO and the food industry had been better then. The cost of distrust meant that industry insights are only now being used to develop population approaches to tackling the diet and activity underpinnings of chronic diseases.
But I sense that we are turning the corner on change. That private, public and community based groups now understand that the siloed and often ideological differences of the past must give way for real collaboration. Collaboration that is driven by our common desire to improve global nutrition.