A major US nutrition group and its foundation have a “symbiotic” relationship with the food and pharmaceutical industries, according to public health researchers.
In an analysis of documents obtained through a freedom of information request, key leaders for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) hold important positions in international food and agribusiness companies, according to Angela Carriedo, PhD, of the World Public Health Nutrition Association, and colleagues.
The AND has also invested money in corporations such as Nestle, PepsiCo, and pharmaceutical companies, and has received significant corporate financial contributions, Carredo and colleagues reported in the journal. Public Health Nutrition.
“The fact that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics is part owner of highly processed food companies should go down in the conflict of interest Hall of Fame,” Gary Ruskin, executive director of the watchdog US Right to Know, and co . -author on the paper, by MedPage Today.
“The big picture here is that obesity and type two diabetes are, of course, diseases that individual people suffer from, but they are also diseases of corporate influence,” said Ruskin. “The heavily processed food industry uses its influence to get people hooked on its products and is able to corrupt health groups like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to legitimize and maintain its grip on our nation’s stomachs, and that’s why this is important.”
Ruskin noted that the academy and its foundation have tremendous influence as they represent more than 112,000 qualified practitioners, including registered dietitian nutritionists.
In a statement, AM responded to what it described as “misleading and false allegations” in the report, calling it a “calculated attack” against nutrition and dietetics professionals. “The report contains numerous factual and methodological errors, omissions, and information taken out of context,” the statement said.
“Academy members are advocates for shaping policies and practices to promote positive food choices that improve public health and nutrition,” the statement continued. “Through their assumptions, omissions and deviations, the authors of the report have done a serious disservice to the Academy, our members and the entire nutrition and dietetics profession.”
For their report, Ruskin and colleagues analyzed academy documents between 2014 and 2020 obtained through freedom of information requests, and cross-referenced that information with publicly available data. In total, the authors said they collected more than 80,000 files that revealed evidence of the academy’s key leadership dealings with several food, pharmaceutical and agribusiness corporations.
The academy was found to have received more than $15 million from corporations in those industries between 2011 and 2017. Several companies were found to have contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the academy and its foundation, including:
National Dairy Council (donated $1,496,912)
Conagra Inc. ($1,414,058)
Abbott Nutrition ($1,246,389)
PepsiCo Inc. ($486,335)
Coca-Cola Co. ($477,577)
Hershey Co. ($368,032)
General Mills Inc. ($309,733)
Kellogg USA ($273,272)
Ruskin said these contributions were part of a “quid pro quo” which included “rights and benefits” for the corporate sponsors. Ruskin and his co-authors wrote that the documents reveal “several cases when [the academy] has legitimized certain corporate views.”
Indeed, Ruskin and his co-authors found several instances where the academy acted to influence other institutions and the public by providing supporting evidence to those industry sponsors.
One example was the 2017 task force on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) which produced a report with critical views that would have been considered “direct criticism of the products of some sponsors” for the academy. The authors said the documents reveal that three members of the academy’s board tried to delay the report from being presented during a meeting, “where corporate funding opportunities are to be discussed,” according to the investigation.
In another example, documents revealed academy leadership discussing the nature of their involvement in the US secretary of agriculture’s new Sodium Awareness initiative in 2017, designed to help reduce sodium in school meals. One academy leader wrote in response to this effort, “while this is a tremendous HONOR, we seem to be talking out of both sides of our mouths about sodium.”
Regarding AM’s investments, internal documents from 2015 to 2016 show that the organization invested in the stock of a number of food and pharmaceutical companies, including Abbott, Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, Merck, PepsiCo, Nestle, and JM Smucker’s Company.
Regarding conflicts of interest among its leaders, the report cites how AND director Milton Stokes worked for Monsanto. That company contributed $175,000 to the AND Foundation, which established a communications advisory group with AND members.
The researchers said their findings “show striking similarities to other cases of corporate-captured organisations, such as the International Life Science Foundation and the Global Energy Balance Network, organized by the soft drinks industry to promote its commercial agenda in scientific institutions.”
They concluded that their study “demonstrates the extent to which corporate funding enables corporate influence in AC in particular, and across such partnerships more widely. It also suggests that this is normalised, by consider the nature of the agreements made and the relationships formed.”
“Although AND has changed some of its internal policies to control interference and corporate funding,” they wrote, “it continues to promote corporate interests in many ways and serves as a voice for its corporate sponsors.”
GR is the executive director of US Right to Know, a nonprofit investigative public health organization. Since its founding in 2014, USRTK has received the following contributions from major donors (donations of $5,000 or more): Organic Consumers Association: $1,032,500; Dr. Family Foundation Bronner: $575,000; Laura and John Arnold Foundation: $397,600; Center for Effective Altruism: $200,000; Ryan Salame: $160,000; US Small Business Administration: $119,970; Westreich Foundation: $110,000; Ceres Trust: $70,000; Schmidt Family Foundation: $53,800; Bluebell Foundation: $50,000; CrossFit Foundation: $50,000; Thousand Current: $42,500; San Diego Foundation: $25,000; Community Foundation of Western North Carolina: $35,000; Vital Spark Foundation: $20,000; Panta Rhea Foundation: $20,000; California Office of the Small Business Advocate: $15,000; Pollinator Stewardship Council: $14,000; Swift Foundation: $10,000; ReGen ImpactAssets Fund: $10,000; Lilah Hilliard Fisher Foundation: $5,000; Aurora Foundation: $5,000; Janet Buck: $5,000.