Big Food’s Co-optation of Nutrition Professionals
Food Safety News
by Michele Simon, Opinion
For years now, I have been hearing about the food industry’s influence on the annual conference of the American Dietetic Association — the nation’s largest gathering of nutrition professionals–with some 7,000 registered dietitians in attendance. Last month, I witnessed it for myself and discovered the corporate takeover by Big Food was worse than I even imagined.
The top-paying sponsors, whom ADA called “partners,” were Coca-Cola, Aramark, the National Dairy Council, and Hershey (their “Center for Health and Nutrition” – really). “Premier sponsors” included PepsiCo, Mars, and General Mills.
The exhibit hall seemed more like a processed food trade show than a nutrition conference. I saw very few booths with actual information, apart from that being peddled by the likes of Nestle, Kraft, and McDonald’s, along with (of course), ubiquitous product samples, tastings, and myriad swag. (Oddly, Monsanto’s booth featured its branded, soy-based lip balm.)
But the worst cooptation came during the “educational sessions,” which should have been off limits to marketing. Numerous panels were hosted by industry players, including, “Dairy Innovations,” brought to you by (surprise!) the National Dairy Council, which also hosted a media-only session, as did others.
“Culinary” demos were offered by cooking experts such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Hershey, and McNeil (maker of the fake sugar, Splenda). For attending several “Expo Impact Sessions,” described by ADA as “scientific and evidenced-based,” RDs could even earn continuing educational units. Who better to teach, “Are Sugars Toxic: What’s Wrong with Current Research?” than the Corn Refiners Association? I attended a silly session called “Snacking and the 2010 Dietary Guidelines” brought to me by the largest snacking experts in the nation, Frito-Lay, who also had a huge booth touting their deceptively-labeled “natural” products, nearby the monstrous booth hosted by parent company PepsiCo.
But while all this was obvious industry spin, several sessions had backers harder to identify because of the stealth names, lack of transparency, and impressive backgrounds of the presenters. Enter the International Food and Information Council. Certainly sounds legit. But if anything sets off my BS detector it’s the word “council.” It’s often used by corporate front groups to magically transform public relations into credible science.
A closer look reveals IFIC’s true agenda. On its board of trustees sits representatives from PepsiCo, Kraft Foods, and General Mills, while funders include the likes of Coca-Cola, Hershey, McDonald’s, Nestle, and Monsanto. (Funny how this list sounds remarkably similar to ADA’s sponsors.)
IFIC’s mission is “to effectively communicate science-based information about health, nutrition and food safety for the public good.” Heartwarming. Under “Food Safety Resources” IFIC communicates about such sticky issues as arsenic in food and “The Science of Bisphenol A.” For the public good of course.
What sort of science-based information was IFIC communicating to 7,000 nutrition professionals at the ADA meeting? The session, “A Fresh Look at Processed Foods” promised to “share new research on how processed foods contribute to key nutrition needs.” Sounds a tad defensive.
Another panel asked, “How Risky is Our Food? Clarifying the Controversies of Chemical Risks.” Who exactly is attempting to clarify the controversy? While the session was not listed in the program as being organized by IFIC, the moderator, Marianne Smith Edge, is the group’s senior vice president of nutrition and food safety. At no time during her remarks did she disclose IFIC’s corporate funding, although ADA rules require speakers to disclose any conflicts of interest. The two panelists were Julie Miller Jones and Carl Winter, both academic researchers, apparently hand-picked by IFIC for their industry-friendly positions. And indeed, each speaker downplayed any risks of chemicals in food such as pesticides, food dyes, and other additives, while practically making fun of organic production.
Jones lamented about organics being too expensive and offered tired arguments about how risks are everywhere, so really, why worry? She also claimed people automatically fear something because it is artificial. But Andy Bellatti, an RD in attendance told me he found this “rather insulting; she’s trying to argue we have no capacity for rational thought. The concern with artificial ingredients is over studies showing harmful effects.”
But the lowlight of the session came when Carl Winter launched into a lengthy attack on the Environmental Working Group’s Dirty Dozen, an annual list of the 12 fruits and vegetables most contaminated with pesticides. Winter claimed the list wasn’t backed by science, resorting to outright mockery at times. This was the same theme Winter struck in his “Expert Perspective” for IFIC this summer. His core argument is that EWG only considers pesticide residue and not actual exposure, which he argues, causes “negligible risks to consumers.”
Now reasonable people can disagree on this point and I am no expert in pesticides, but most troubling was how the audience only got to hear one side of the story. Why wasn’t anyone from EWG invited to participate to defend their scientific analysis?
During the Q&A, several frustrated attendees challenged the presenters–the only time the audience heard any opposing viewpoint. Several who spoke up are members of the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietary Practice Group, which represents a growing number of RDs who are challenging ADA’s corporate ties and making inroads, slowly but surely. (I recently became a “friend of HEN” to support this brave group of professionals challenging the status quo.)
I asked the moderator why IFIC had organized such a one-sided panel and complained that as a writer for Food Safety News, I was unable to cover the session in an intelligent way given the biased information. IFIC denied any such bias and defended its selection of presenters. Afterwards, an IFIC rep approached me to offer to put together a more balanced panel at next year’s event. I am still waiting for the follow-up phone call.
But the corporate-funded, pro-pesticide spin didn’t end there. A few of us took to Twitter during the session, which in turn inspired a hit piece on Forbes.com called, “Cleaning up the EWG’s Dirty Dozen,” co-authored by Henry Miller and Jeff Stier. Both have ties to the American Council on Science and Health, (there’s that “council” moniker again) a notorious industry front group that has attacked the likes of Marion Nestle. Miller is currently a fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Competitive Enterprise Institute, right-wing / libertarian think tanks that favor deregulation, both heavily funded by corporate interests.
Here’s how the Forbes article describes what happened at ADA, although neither author was actually in attendance:
Winter presented his report at the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo this week. The food police on hand were outraged with his findings, but the best they could muster were ad hominem attacks on Dr. Winter and IFIC, such as, “Google Carl Winter and industry front group IFIC and you will understand.” In fact, EWG’s Senior Communications and Policy Advisor, Don Carr took to Twitter to call IFIC “industry goons.” So much for scientific debate.
OK, so the Google suggestion was mine and I’ve been called the food police before. But scientific debate? That was sorely lacking at the event itself, as Don Carr noted in his comment in response to the article:
EWG was not invited to the American Dietetic Association’s Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo nor were we even alerted that our Shopper’s Guide would be the topic of discussion at the event sponsored by an industry front group. We welcome any opportunity for an honest, open and transparent discussion about pesticides and our consumer guide – but that was not afforded to us.
Indeed how about a lively debate on whether chemicals in food are dangerous? That would have far more interesting and useful for the audience. But industry front groups are not interested in debating. IFIC only wants to present the spin that supports its funders’ economic interests, which is entirely understandable. But how can the American Dietetic Association allow such powerful economic interests to completely control the message its members hear?
Between the junk-food dominated expo and the industry-friendly educational sessions, the American Dietetic Association conference is yet another disturbing example of Big Food’s co-optation of the nation’s health professionals.
Michele Simon is a public health lawyer specializing in industry marketing and lobbying tactics. She is the author of “Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back” and president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting firm.