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Professional Nutrition Groups and Ties to Corporate Sponsors

Public health attorney Michele Simon recently published an explosive indictment of the links between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics—the largest association of nutrition professionals in the U.S.—and the food industry. In the report, titled “And Now a Word From Our Sponsors: Are America’s Nutrition Professionals in the Pocket of Big Food?,” Simon questions the influence and relationship that many leading food corporations have with the association’s 74,000 members.

In her 51-page report, Simon asks three main questions: What responsibility does the Academy bear for being a leading advocate for food policy changes? Does forming partnerships with the food industry compromise the group’s credibility? What does the food industry gain from its partnerships with groups like the Academy?

Among Simon’s findings:

  • In 2001, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics listed 10 food industry sponsors; in the 2011 annual report there were 38.
  • At the Academy’s 2012 meeting, 18 organizations (less than 5% of the total) had 25% of the total exhibitor space, and only two of the 18 represented whole, nonprocessed foods.
  • In education sessions provided by the food companies, attendees heard that sugar is not harmful to children, aspartame is safe for children over 1 year old, and the Institute of Medicine is too restrictive in its nutrition standards for schools.
  • Approximately 23% of the speakers at the event had industry ties, yet session descriptions did not disclose most of them.
  • Ninety-seven percent of surveyed registered dietitians thought the Academy should verify that a potential sponsor’s corporate mission was consistent with its own before accepting the company as a sponsor.
  • Fruit and vegetable vendors took up only about 12% of the expo floor at the 2012 meeting.

In addition to expressing concern that corporate money has bought the silence or complicity of dietitians (she notes that the Academy has not supported controversial policies such as soda taxes, GMO labels, and limits on soft-drink sizes), Simon worries that by putting its “seal of approval on materials developed by Coca-Cola® and the National Dairy Council®, the Academy is sending a strong message that these are legitimate sources of health and nutrition information,” rather than publicity materials.

In her summary, Simon makes five recommendations for the Academy:

1. [Provide] greater transparency regarding corporate sponsorship.

2. Request input from the Academy members.

3. Implement meaningful sponsorship guidelines.

4. Reject corporate-sponsored continuing education and education sessions.

5. Strengthen the Academy’s leadership role in nutrition policy.

Right after Simon released her report, the Academy’s president, Ethan Bergman, PhD, RD, FADA, CD, issued an official statement refuting many of her claims: “Of 67 references . . . the majority of the report consists of publicly available facts filtered through the author’s opinions.

“ . . . There is one indisputable fact in the report about the Academy’s sponsorship program: We have one. And for the record, I support the Academy’s sponsorship program, as does the Board of Directors and our members.

“Let me make it clear that the Academy does not tailor our messages or programs in any way due to influence by corporate sponsors and this report does not provide evidence to the contrary.

“ . . . As members of a science-based organization, I encourage you to not take all information you see at face value, always consider the source (in this case, an advocate who has previously shown her predisposition to find fault with the Academy) and seek out the facts.”

According to Marion Nestle, best-selling author of Food Politics (University of California 2007, with a revised and expanded edition due out this May), Bergman’s statement basically says, “Ignore the message because the messenger is not one of us.”

Simon had essentially the same reaction to the statement as Nestle: “This is a typical ‘shoot the messenger’ tactic often deployed by the food industry when they would rather not debate the substance of the issue. The response says almost nothing about the heart of my critique, except in a vague reference to members supporting AND’s [the Academy’s] corporate sponsorship program. But this is not borne out by at least two surveys that I cite in my report. Also, I have received countless emails and Twitter™ responses from RDs thanking me for bringing this untenable situation to light, in addition to the RDs already quoted in the report. Finally, if the worst thing AND can say about my research is that I cited their own website, I am fine with that.”

Registered dietitian Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, listed in the acknowledgements in Simon’s report, also weighed in. “President Bergman’s response was disappointing. It not only avoided the issue at hand—how some of AND’s corporate sponsorships have negatively affected the organization’s operations as well as the reputation of its constituents—but also dismissed the valid concerns of many RDs.

“It is precisely this out-of-touch tone deafness—which has plagued the Academy for years—that has so many RDs frustrated. It seems, from that statement, that Mr. Bergman wishes to sweep this report under the rug. However, I don’t know how much longer that can go on, seeing as how the report received very strong support from many dietitians in social media.”

Judging from the passionate statements by all parties concerned, it is clear this issue will continue to be part of the professional health industry’s conversations for the foreseeable future.

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