by Marion Nestle
Mar 18 2015

Dietitians in turmoil over conflicts of interest: it’s about time

My e-mail inbox is filled with items about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND, formerly the American Dietetic Association).  Its “seal of approval” on Kraft cheese singles (as discussed in an earlier post) was embarrassing—so embarrassing that it was discussed by Jon Stewart: “The Academy is an Academy in the same way this [Kraft Singles] is cheese” (the clip starts at 4:37).

The Onion also had some fun with this.

But now there is even more about how food companies buy the opinions of dietitians.

Candice Choi writes about how Coca-Cola pays dietitians to promote its drinks as healthy snacks (for an example of one of the paid posts, click here).  She explains that the dietitians

wrote online posts for American Heart Month, with each including a mini-can of Coke or soda as a snack idea. The pieces — which appeared on nutrition blogs and other sites including those of major newspapers — offer a window into the many ways food companies work behind the scenes to cast their products in a positive light, often with the help of third parties who are seen as trusted authorities.

Ms. Choi quotes a Coca-Cola spokesman:

“We have a network of dietitians we work with,” said Sheidler, who declined to say how much the company pays experts. “Every big brand works with bloggers or has paid talent.”

Other companies including Kellogg and General Mills have used strategies like providing continuing education classes for dietitians, funding studies that burnish the nutritional images of their products and offering newsletters for health experts. PepsiCo Inc. has also worked with dietitians who suggest its Frito-Lay and Tostito chips in local TV segments on healthy eating.

These are individual actions.  But at last the dietetic membership is objecting to the Academy’s partnership with Kraft.

  1. They have started a Change.org petition to #RepealTheSeal.
  2. The President of the New York State AND chapter (NYSAND), Molly Morgan, sent out a note in support of the petition.

Thank you to the many of you that have expressed your concern and disappointment about the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics partnership with Kraft. This issue has been reviewed carefully by the NYSAND Board of Directors and the entire board is in support of actively taking steps to share our members concerns. Below are the action steps that NYSAND is taking:

–       Last week (March 11, 2015) the NYSAND Sponsorship Task Force recommendations were received and yesterday (March 16, 2015) at the March NYSAND Board of Directors meeting the Sponsorship Task Force recommendations were reviewed. Please stay tuned for more updates and note that a motion will be forth coming this week for the board to take the next step in addressing sponsorship for NYSAND.

–       Today (March 17, 2015) a letter was sent to the Academy president and emailed to several Academy leaders expressing the views that our members have shared and that as an Affiliate we are not comfortable responding with the talking points provided by the Academy on this issue.

–       Dietitians have started a petition, “Repeal the Seal”; NYSAND will be sharing this on our Affiliate Facebook and Twitter pages and encourages all members who share the concern to sign the petition as well. CLICK HERE to sign the petition.

3.  The AND national CEO, Patricia M. Babjak, sent out this letter to members, also on March 17:

Let me begin by apologizing for the concerns caused by the education initiative with Kraft. The Academy and the Foundation are listening. As a member-driven organization, the Academy’s staff and leadership hear your concerns and welcome your input.

Unfortunately, recent news articles misstated a collaboration as a Kids Eat Right “endorsement” of Kraft Singles, and that it represents a “seal of approval” from Kids Eat Right, the Foundation, or the Academy. It is not an endorsement. It is not a seal of approval. We understand this distinction is of little consequence to many Academy members who are concerned with the perception. We are working on a solution.

In addition, we are working to establish a joint, member-driven Member Advisory Panel. This Panel will work closely with both Boards to:

  • Establish dialogue with members
  • Gather input and give feedback on member issues
  • Make specific recommendations

Recognizing sponsorship as a significant issue of concern among members, the House of Delegates leadership team, who also serve on the Board of Directors, scheduled a dialogue on sponsorship for the upcoming virtual House of Delegates meeting, May 3. We encourage all members to reach out to your delegates and share your thoughts on the benefits of, concerns about and suggestions for the sponsorship program. The Academy and Foundation Boards are looking forward to your input.

Applause to members who are speaking out.

As I said in an interview with TakePart:

The food companies have learned from tobacco and drugs and other industries like that how to play this game…Let’s confuse the science, let’s cast doubt on the science, let’s shoot the messenger, let’s sow confusion.

But since everyone has to eat, the food industry has been given a pass on its pay-to-play practices….

The capital N news…is that dietitians are fighting back at last.

I hope they join Dietitians for Professional Integrity and insist that the leadership respond to their concerns.

AdditionA dietitian sends this communication from the Executive Board of the California Dietetic Association to members about the Kraft situation:

We would like to direct your attention to what the California Dietetic Association (CDA) has done to address our own issues surrounding sponsorship. We heard your concerns regarding CDA Annual Conference sponsorship and we have listened. We voted and McDonalds was not invited as a sponsor in 2015. This decision has impacted our finances; however, we believe it was important to respond to our member feedback. In addition, an ad hoc committee approved by the CDA executive board, reevaluated the sponsorship guidelines. The new sponsorship policy will be posted soon on www.dietitian.org.

  • Heather

    I know there is a growing generation of PhDs and RDs who recognize the issue and want to act. Our end goal is to promote health and nutrition information in a truthful and simplified form. As a doctoral student in nutritional sciences, what do you suggest I do now in my early career to stand up against falsified information entering the general public through big money?

  • Carol Szymczak Plotkin

    “But at last the dietetic membership is objecting to the Academy’s partnership with Kraft.” this statement is not quite accurate. Membership has always had problems with these corporate liaisons, but “at last” the Academy is listening to us. I have taken Academy surveys that are trying to measure the pulse of membership with respect to corporate affiliations, but the surveys are loaded to get the answers that they want. They are multiple choice and the options do not truly reflect opposition. The Academy stepped in it big time with the KER endorsement and the members pounced. Because of the outside criticism along with membership objection, the Academy has had to listen to us at last! Please give RDNs a little more credit Ms. Nestle!!

  • Colleen Daly

    With all due respect, Ms. Plotkin, it does not seem that the Academy is listening. If you look at the statement regarding this issue on the AND web page [http://www.eatrightpro.org/resource/media/press-releases/academy-foundation-news/statement-from-academy-foundation-on-new-nutrition-education-campaign], the foundation is not apologizing for misdeeds or for sowing confusion, nor are they suggesting that they will “repeal the seal.” Instead they are “explaining” the situation by describing the seal as evidence of collaboration:

    “Contrary to recent published reports, this collaboration does not constitute any endorsement or nutritional seal of approval by the Academy, its Foundation or Kids Eat Right. The Academy Foundation does not endorse any products, brands or services. The Kids Eat Right logo on KRAFT Singles packaging identifies the brand as a proud supporter of Kids Eat Right.”

    Can one assume then that the foundation would be happy if its logo appeared anywhere and everywhere, say on cans of Coke, or on 5-pound bags of sugar, or on bottles of beer if Coke, Spreckles, or Coors wrote a tasty-sized check to AND?

    Until the foundation admits they have created confusion, at the very least, and agrees to return all sponsorship $ from any Big Food/Big Ag or any company that could — at first, second, or third glance — be considered to have a vested interest in such collaborations, all RDNs (and all thinking people) should work relentlessly to expose this conflict of interest for what it is.

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  • Problem Solver

    These egregiously unprofessional conflicts of interest MUST STOP!!! There is simply no excuse (and no need) for financial incentives to our esteemed organization from the likes of Kraft Foods, Coca-Cola or from the likes of Ben & Jerry’s or Wholefoods, for that matter. What is needed is for members to fully fund every initiative. If we members who are so outraged would, instead, be so passionately motivated as to pay for all of the association’s programming ourselves we would not have this humiliating catastrophe on our hands. A silly Change.Org petition complaining about outside funding is not the same thing as an aggressive internal dunning to get these important works funded from the people who really, really care the most about them – US! There is altogether too much vindictive b!tching and far too little joyful tithing. Let’s put up or shut up, girls, show Jon Stewart and the AND who REALLY CARES about this! Perhaps as little as an additional $1500 per member would fund the vital work of our organization. We could get that done with in weeks with one simple mailing, no? Then just add it to the annual membership dues going forward. Easy peasy! What do you say?

  • Problem Solver

    It is wonderful to know there are PhD level minds working on these pressing problems. As for what you can do, and using this latest AND/Kraft dustup as an example, certainly a professional of your stature could review the pertinent science and report succinctly to expose these Kraft Singles for the deadly poison they certainly must be. In every case just stay true to the science, don’t buy into the hyped drama, and don’t drift into reflexively reciting the urban myth du-jour. Sticking faithfully with the science will sometimes briefly make you unpopular among your less fastidious colleagues but you will prevail in the end when all the hysterical smoke clears.

  • Janice

    Why can’t we just get all the financial support we need from organic farmers or maybe from companies that don’t make food? Maybe from ski resorts or car dealerships. I don’t want to pay $1500 or any extra. I care a lot about this and I really hate Kraft but not that much.

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