Backlash over McDonald's and Coca-Cola Olympics sponsorship comments


Public health experts from around the world have strongly criticised the head of the UK's Food and Drink Federation (FDF) for suggesting that non-western countries have "no problem" with Coca-Cola and McDonald's sponsoring the Olympics.

Ian Wright, director-general of the FDF, which represents the food and drink industry, told Campaign magazine that the "source of the controversy is invariably Western and metropolitan" and Asian and Latin American countries have "no problem" with the companies.

In the interview published on August 2, Mr Wright said: "Coca-Cola and McDonald's are among the world's most responsible companies. Being involved in the Olympic family and sharing its values allows both sides to benefit from the special value of such relationships.

"You only have to look at Johnnie Walker's sponsorship of the McLaren Formula One team to see that it has not only been very successful but has also advanced the cause of responsible drinking.

"You also have to remember that the source of the controversy is invariably Western and metropolitan. Asian and Latin American countries have no problem with companies that behave responsibly."

But the Children's Food Campaign (CFC) charity claimed the FDF had become a target of global backlash against the Rio Olympics' "carnival of junk food marketing" as it released responses gathered from public health campaigners and experts criticising Mr Wright's comments.

Dr Fabio Gomes, a Brazilian public health nutritionist and World Health Organisation regional advisor on nutrition, described Mr Wright's statement as "outrageous and wrong" and Alejandro Calvillo, who has served on advisory panels to the Pan American Health Organisation, Consumers International and Mexico's national consumer protection agency, described Mr Wright's comments as "offensive".

Tilakavati Karupaiah, an associate professor in the faculty of health sciences at the National University of Malaysia, said: "Our own and our government's efforts to continue to get important health messages across are threatened by the millions of dollars spent on marketing campaigns for junk food and sugary drinks."

Tim Lobstein, policy director at the World Obesity Federation, said: "Child obesity is rising rapidly in developing economies and the last thing the children need are inducements to consume more junk food.

"The Olympic Games should be a beacon of human progress and ability, not a place where poor nutrition is given a halo of gold."

CFC co-ordinator Malcolm Clark said: "Today, as the Rio2016 Olympics begin, we stand in solidarity with public health counterparts in Brazil, and throughout the world, as they seek to counter the effects of the many millions of pounds spent by companies promoting sugary drinks and calorie-dense, highly processed food to families during this period.

"As their angry responses to the UK's Food and Drink Federation makes clear, countries in Latin America and Asia take the health impact of junk food marketing as seriously as everywhere else.

"Ian Wright conveniently forgets that countries such as Mexico, Chile, Brazil, South Korea and Taiwan have been leading the way globally in actions taken by governments to tackle obesity and excess sugar consumption.

"We are writing to the UK embassies of these countries, to encourage them to seek a formal apology from the Food and Drink Federation, and to invite Ian Wright to meet with them and learn more about their innovative, and effective, policy initiatives - including the sugary drinks tax and robust regulations restricting junk food marketing to children."

The FDF said: "We have, of course, received no requests for an apology from any embassy and Ian stands by his comments."

Mr Wright added: "The recent, ground-breaking McKinsey report ranked the most effective interventions to tackle obesity worldwide. Portion control and reformulation of foods came out top, with restrictions on sports sponsorship nowhere on the list.

"At a time when public health budgets are shrinking, restricting sports sponsorship from food and drink companies - whether of grassroots sport or international competitions - would result in less physical activity, not more."

A Coca-Cola Great Britain spokeswoman said the company was proud to have been an Olympic partner since 1928.

She said: "In the UK we are working hard to raise awareness of the no-sugar options we offer and have recently launched new and improved sugar-free Coca-Cola Zero Sugar - our biggest new product launch in a decade.

"Today, every major drink we sell in the UK has a lower or no-sugar option available and since 2005 we've launched 28 drinks with low or no sugar.

"We've also introduced new smaller pack sizes to give people more choice and have put the government's voluntary traffic light labelling scheme on all of our bottles and cans to help people choose the right drink for them.

"We have a responsible marketing policy in place and don't market to children under 12, and through our marketing and advertising we're also working to raise awareness of the low and no sugar drinks we offer."