updated 1/27/2006 7:57:01 PM ET 2006-01-28T00:57:01

A U.S.-based research foundation is being barred by the World Health Organization from helping set global standards for protecting food and water supplies because of its funding sources.

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However, the nonprofit International Life Sciences Institute, which is funded by hundreds of chemical, food and drug companies, will remain as one of nearly 200 “non-governmental organizations” that WHO views as working partners.

The Washington-based institute can no longer take part in WHO activities setting microbiological or chemical standards for food and water, the U.N. health agency’s executive board decided Friday in Geneva, Switzerland.

The Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Working Group, United Steelworkers of America and 15 other health, environmental and union groups asked WHO in December to sever ties with the institute.

“The WHO and other public health agencies risk their scientific credibility and may be compromising public health by partnering with ILSI,” NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass wrote WHO on behalf of the advocacy groups and unions.

Sass said the institute “has a demonstrated history of putting the interests of its exclusively corporate membership ahead of science and health concerns, and that ILSI’s special status with the WHO provides a back door to influence WHO activities.”

The groups and unions noted that WHO guidelines require it to limit its dealings to those “free from concerns which are primarily of a commercial or profit-making nature.”

Suzanne Harris, the institute’s executive director, said Friday that ILSI doesn’t participate in setting the standard for managing risks in protecting food and water supplies. She said ILSI conducts top research and that, since winning recognition from WHO about 15 years ago, it has collaborated on several studies, most recently to promote healthier lifestyles in Chile, Mexico and Brazil.

“We are not a back door for industry,” Harris, a biochemist and former Agriculture deputy assistant secretary in the Reagan administration, said in an interview. “We try to do everything transparently. Nothing we do is hidden. It all gets published.”

Sixty percent of the institute’s funding comes from its member companies, Harris said. Another 20 percent comes from grants from private foundations and government agencies, she said, while the other 20 percent is drawn from sales of publications and meeting fees. She said the foundation doesn’t do “proprietary research” that would benefit a single company.

“Our goal is improving public health, and we believe that that in itself benefits our membership. We’re not trying to sell anything,” Harris said.

The institute’s member companies include Bayer AG, Coca-Cola, Dow Agrosciences/Dow Chemical, DuPont, ExxonMobil, General Mills, Hershey Foods, Kellogg, Kraft, McDonald’s, Merck & Co., Monsanto, Nestle, Novartis, PepsiCo, Pfizer and Proctor & Gamble.

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