by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Conflicts-of-interest

Nov 10 2011

Coca-Cola v. Grand Canyon: donations come with short strings

I’m always saying that food company donations and partnerships to health and environmental Good Causes end up doing more for the companies than the recipients.  Money always talks.  Accepting corporate donations comes with strings that create conflicts of interest.

The latest evidence for these assertions comes from the Grand Canyon’s efforts to get plastic water and soda bottles out of the park.  These account for a whopping 30% of its waste.

According to the account in today’s New York Times, Coca-Cola, one of the park’s big donors, convinced the National Park Service to block the bottle ban.

Stephen P. Martin, the architect of the plan and the top parks official at the Grand Canyon, said his superiors told him two weeks before its Jan. 1 start date that Coca-Cola, which distributes water under the Dasani brand and has donated more than $13 million to the parks, had registered its concerns about the bottle ban through the foundation, and that the project was being tabled.

The Times quotes Mr. Martin:

That was upsetting news because of what I felt were ethical issues surrounding the idea of being influenced unduly by business…It was even more of a concern because we had worked with all the people who would be truly affected in their sales and bottom line, and they accepted it.

It also quotes a Coca-Cola spokeswoman, Susan Stribling:

the company would rather help address the plastic litter problem by increasing the availability of recycling programs. “Banning anything is never the right answer…If you do that, you don’t necessarily address the problem…You’re not allowing people to decide what they want to eat and drink and consume.”

And throw plastic bottles into the park, I guess.

This sordid episode explains why Coke gives millions to the Grand Canyon.  In a word, greenwashing.

Oops.

Coke needs to change its position on this one.  And so does the Park Service.

 

Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion.

That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
Aug 23 2011

New study: healthy diets produce health benefits

The latest issue of JAMA has a paper on a “portfolio” of dietary means to reduce blood cholesterol levels.

The paper is likely to get lots of press because it concludes that consuming the “portfolio”—a combination of plant sterols, soy protein, viscous fibers, and nuts—does a better job of lowering LDL-cholesterol (the “bad” kind) than does dietary advice to reduce saturated fat.

The paper is unusually difficult to read  (see the Abstract, for example).  But besides that, I interpret the study in part as a drug trial.

One look at the Abstract and I immediately suspected that this study must have been sponsored by a maker of plant sterol margarines.

Bingo!

Plant sterols are well established to reduce blood cholesterol levels.  Unilever, which makes Take Control margarines, is one of the sponsors.

As I interpret it, the study shows:

  • Advising people who weigh an average of 76 kg (167 pounds) to consume a healthy diet doesn’t work.  Study subjects did not change their diets by much during the six months of the trial.  No news here.
  • Advising people to add things to their diets has a better chance of succeeding than advising taking things away (like saturated fat).
  • All of the portfolio items have been established to lower blood cholesterol in clinical trials, although the evidence for soy protein seems a bit iffy these days.
  • The study does not distinguish between the relative effects of soy protein, fiber, or cholesterol lowering margarines. If soy is eliminated, that leaves fiber and margarines. I’m guessing the margarines were the critical factor. Hence: a partial drug trial.

And because my book on calories is coming out next March, I must point out that the study groups reported losing  losing small amounts of weight, which means they must also have reduced their calorie intake.  Weight loss alone should help with blood cholesterol.

The take-home message: if you really do substitute nuts, sources of fiber, and healthy foods for whatever less healthful foods you used to eat, you ought to get some health benefit, with or without plant sterol margarines.

QED: Healthy diets produce health benefits.

It’s always nice to see that confirmed.

 

 

Apr 21 2011

More on Oxfam’s anti-poverty partnership with Coca-Cola

Among the many thoughtful comments on yesterday’s post is one from the Director of Oxfam America’s Private Sector Department, Chris Jochnick, who writes that I did not “quite capture the scope and intent of this project.”

As part of our work, Oxfam has a responsibility to engage with global corporations, through both collaboration and campaigns, in order to have constructive dialog on their business practices.

….Throughout the work, Oxfam has maintained complete independence including the ability to undertake advocacy against either company if the situation warranted. The Coca-Cola Company and Oxfam America shared the costs of the collaboration roughly in the proportion of 2:1, with The Coca-Cola Company contributing two-thirds of the costs (US $400,000) and Oxfam America contributing one-third of the costs in kind including staff time.

Unrelated to the study, The Coca-Cola Company made an earlier donation of $2,500,000 to Oxfam between 2008-2010 for humanitarian work in Sudan, with an emphasis on work related to water, sanitation and hygiene.

….Our independent voice keeps Oxfam’s approach to private sector collaborations dynamic and honest.

Let me add a bit more about what I think is wrong with this picture.

The goal of Coca-Cola is to sell more Coca-Cola.  The goal of Oxfam is to address world poverty.  I’m having trouble understanding how these goals could be mutually compatible.

Coke sales in the United States are flagging.  Last year, three quarters of Coke’s revenue derived from sales outside of North America in emerging economies where rates of obesity are increasing rapidly.

Sugary beverages like Coke are increasingly associated with obesity and its health consequences, problems now rampant in developing economies.

In the past year, Coke has embarked on an aggressive campaign of contributions to potentially critical groups such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Save the Children, and now Oxfam.

These groups are now highly unlikely to advise their constituents to cut down on sugary sodas.  If nothing else, sponsorship buys silence.

Oxfam may have done the work of its Poverty Footprint Report without company interference.  It is what is not in the report that is so much in Coke’s interest.

For just under $3 million, Coke has purchased an endorsement from Oxfam of its “anti-poverty” practices and silence on the role of sugary drinks in obesity.  This kind of public relations is well worth the price.

What does Oxfam get in this bargain?  The money, of course, but at the cost of serious questions about the credibility of its report and its independence.  Perhaps these are tolerable, but what about loss of respect?

I score this as a win for Coca-Cola.

 

 

 

Apr 20 2011

The latest oxymoron: Oxfam helps Coca-Cola reduce poverty

I keep arguing that partnerships and alliances with food corporations put agriculture, food, nutrition, and public health advocacy groups in deep conflict of interest.

The latest example is Oxfam America’s partnership with Coca-Cola and bottler SAB Miller to evaluate the effectiveness of these corporations in reducing poverty (again, you can’t make these things up):

Despite the challenges involved, The Coca-Cola Company and SABMiller have each made ambitious and laudable commitments to labor rights, human rights, water, gender, and sustainability. However, there is little accountability to such commitments without the informed engagement of affected groups. By looking across all relevant issues (no cherry-picking) with an organization like Oxfam America and reporting out to stakeholders, these companies have opened themselves to heightened public scrutiny and hopefully increased accountability.

Hopefully, indeed.

The Oxfam Poverty Footprint Report describes the work Coca-Cola and SAB Miller are doing in Zambia and El Salvador to empower and promote sustainability.  It highlights Coca-Cola’s sustainability initiatives.

It does include some telling recommendations for follow-up.  For example:

  • Engage sugar farmers and producers to improve safety and health of sugarcane harvesters.
  • Investigate why independent truck drivers in Zambia work more than eight hours per day and discuss with drivers potential mechanisms to ensure safe driving.
  • Ensure The Coca-Cola Company’s global Advertising and Marketing to Children Policies are being effectively and consistently implemented at a regional level.

You have to read between the lines to see what this report really says.

And what about health, obesity, or the shocking increase in childhood tooth decay that is occurring in Latin America these days as a result of the influx of sugary drinks?  Not a word.

Why is Oxfam America helping Coca-Cola to market its products in Latin America and Africa?  I can only guess that Coca-Cola’s grant to Oxfam must have been substantial.

And thanks to Kelly Moltzen for sending the links.

 

Apr 15 2011

Why partnerships with food companies don’t work

Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, a Professor at the Boston University School of Public Health (whom I do not know), has been mailing me copies of his recent blog posts on partnerships between food corporations and health organizations, particularly the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) (see my previous posts), and the American Dietetic Association (ADA) (see my previous posts on this one too).

Dr. Siegel’s current post discusses two reasons why these partnerships do more for the food companies than they do for the organizations:

1. Coca-Cola and other Big Food companies are using these partnerships to enhance their corporate image, and therefore, their bottom line: sales of unhealthy products that are contributing towards the nation’s obesity epidemic.

In its 2010 annual report, Coca-Cola writes: “…researchers, health advocates and dietary guidelines are encouraging consumers to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, including those sweetened with HFCS or other nutritive sweeteners. Increasing public concern about these issues…may reduce demand for our beverages, which could affect our profitability.”

…Pepsico, in its 2010 annual report, also makes clear the connection between the company’s public image and its bottom line: “Damage to our reputation or loss of consumer confidence in our products for any of these or other reasons could result in decreased demand for our products and could have a material adverse effect on our business, financial condition and results of operations, as well as require additional resources to rebuild our reputation.”

2. The American Dietetic Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, and American Academy of Family Physicians are supporting companies that oppose virtually every state-specific public health policy related to improvement of school nutrition, reduction of junk food and soda consumption, and environmental health and safety.

…Through its contributions to the Grocers Manufacturers Association (GMA), Coca-Cola is opposing any and all taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (soft drinks), opposing the removal of BPA from bottles containing liquids consumed by infants, opposing legislation to simply require the disclosure of product ingredients, opposing taxes on candy, opposing bottle bills, opposing all restrictions on BPA-containing packaging, opposing standards for food processing, and opposing school nutrition standards.

…That the AAP, AAFP, and ADA have fallen for Coca-Cola’s tricks is one possibility. The other, which I find more likely, is that they have been bought off. In other words, that the receipt of large amounts of money has caused them to look the other way. It’s amazing what a little financial support will do. And of course, this is precisely the reason why companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsico include the sponsorship of public health organizations in their marketing plans.

I’m just back from the American Society of Nutrition meetings in Washington, DC, where the daily newsletter put out by the society included full-page advertisements from Coca-Cola, the beef industry, and the Corn Refiners Association (see yesterday’s post).  And then there is the astonishing example of Coca-Cola’s $10 million gift to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to head off a potential city soda tax.

It is completely understandable why food and beverage companies would want to buy silence from health professionals.  It is much less understandable why health organizations would risk their credibility to accept such funding.  Professor Siegel’s analyses of these issues are worth close attention.

Dec 17 2010

Food corporations buy silence from “partners”

Does corporate social responsibility pay off for corporations?  Indeed it does.  Corporate money buys silence, if nothing else.

William Neuman of the New York Times provides a perfect example of how corporate sponsorship gets precisely what it is intended to do.

In this particular case:

  • The corporations are soda companies, Coke and Pepsi.
  • The social responsibility is donations of millions of dollars to a good cause.
  • The cause is Save the Children, a group devoted to child health and development projects internationally and domestically.
  • The intention?   Get Save the Children to stop advocating in favor of soda taxes.

Not long ago, Save the Children was a strong advocate for soda taxes.  Now it is not.  How come?  The group’s website explains:

about a minute ago we said, Corporate donors support us but do not pressure us. Our focus is children not soda tax policy. Back to saving more children now.

The Times, however, suggests a different explanation:

executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity.The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped….In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group’s about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

A mere coincidence?  I don’t think so.  This is a clear win for soda companies, just as was Coca-Cola’s sponsorship of the educational activities of the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can bet those activities do not involve telling parents not to give sodas to their kids.

Is this a win for Save the Children?  The Times reports that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some of the group’s anti-obesity initiatives, is disappointed.  Evidently, its $3.5 million donation wasn’t enough to convince the group to continue its anti-soda activities.

In the meantime, soda taxes continue to stay on the radar as a weight control strategy.  A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that soda taxes could lead to a small but potentially significant weight loss.

According to FoodNavigator’s report about the study,the authors say that applying such taxes throughout the United States could generate a billion dollars or more.  It quotes lead researcher Eric Finkelstein: “Although small, given the rising trend in obesity rates, especially among youth, any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered.”

This kind of study is a challenge to soda companies.  Watch Coke and Pepsi continue donations to charitable and health groups and watch those groups say not one word about the contribution of sodas to obesity.  Cigarettes, anyone?

Dec 3 2010

Latest (short) publictions: enjoy!

Occasionally I write short pieces on request.  A couple have just been published.

The State Department’s Bureau of International Information Programs (who knew?) runs a website, America.gov, on which it provides answers to questions “YOU Asked!”   It invited me to respond to the question, “Why are so many Americans overweight.”

And the professional journal, Childhood Obesity, asked several people to contribute to its new “Industry Watch” column.  The question: “Will private sector companies “step up to the plate” to protect children’s health?

Enjoy!  I file links to these and other writings under Publications on this site.

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