by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Conflicts-of-interest

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.

Nov 10 2010

Academe on “The Conflicted University”

Academe, the journal of the American Association of University Professors, devotes its current issue to corporate and professorial conflicts of interest.

I’m interviewed in this issue, in a Q and A with Academe editor Cat Warren: Big Food, Big Agra, and the Research University.

Guest editor Sheldon Krimsky explains that:

In this special issue, a group of internationally respected academics, science journalists, and other experts tackle what have become some of the thorniest issues facing higher education: corporate conflicts of interest, the chilling of scientific speech and academic freedom, and the urgent need to protect the integrity of scientific research.

Here’s what’s in the rest of the issue—nothing more about food, but plenty that is relevant to the ethical and corporate issues I often discuss on this site :

Kneecapping” Academic Freedom: Corporate attacks on law school clinics are escalating.
Robert R. Kuehn and Peter A. Joy, law professors, Washington University in St. Louis

The Costs of a Climate of Fear: Ideological attacks on scientists undermine sound public policy.
Michael Halpern, program manager, Union of Concerned Scientists

BP, Corporate R&D, and the University: New lessons for research universities, thanks to a catastrophe.
Russ Lea, vice president for research, University of South Alabama

When Research Turns to Sludge: Tying strings to sludge is not as hard as it sounds.
Steve Wing, epidemiologist, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

A Not-So-Slippery Slope: Rejecting tobacco funding isn’t rocket science. It’s basic ethics.
Allan M. Brandt , historian and dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Harvard University

The Historians of Industry: What happens when historians enter the courtroom? Mostly, industry rules.
Gerald Markowitz, historian, City University of New York, and David Rosner, historian, Columbia University

Hubris in Grantland: Languor and laissez-faire greet conflict of interest at the NIH.
Daniel S. Greenberg, science journalist

The Moral Education of Journal Editors: Disclosure is a necessary first step toward scientific integrity.
Sheldon Krimsky, urban and environmental policy and planning professor, Tufts University

Diagnosing Conflict-of-Interest Disorder: How Big Pharma helps write the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Lisa Cosgrove, clinical psychologist, University of Massachusetts Boston, and residential research fellow, Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University

The Canadian Corporate-Academic Complex: The unhealthy collaboration of corporate funders and university administrators.
James Turk, executive director, Canadian Association of University Professors

Nov 1 2010

Europe food chair resigns industry post

This is a conflict-of-interest story.

Last week, FoodNavigator.com reported that the board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) had reelected its chair, Diána Bánáti, despite evidence that she also sits on the board of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-funded group that pretends to be a public health non-profit organization.

EFSA, you may recall,is the agency that is under enormous pressure to rule favorably on industry petitions to allow health claims on European package labels.

The EFSA board said:

The Board deplores the unfounded attacks on the independence of EFSA and its Chair recently reported, and concluded that by no means the integrity of the persons involved could be questioned.  However, the Board added that in order to avoid misperception, Bánáti should step down from management positions in any organisations that represent food industry interests, apart from public interests.  Professor Diána Bánáti has resigned from positions which may create a potential conflict of interests with EFSA activities.

ILSI was not one of the organizations from which she resigned.  Evidently, the EFSA Board considers ILSI to be a public health organization.

Within days, however,  Ms Bánáti thought better of it and resigned from the ILSI Board. To my great surprise, I get credit for this action.

Bánáti’s action was that recommended by Marion Nestle, an expert on nutrition and the food industry at New York University, in a Nature news article on the matter—Food agency denies conflict-of-interest claim—who said that were she Bánáti, “she would resign from the ILSI board”….In a statement issued yesterday, ILSI says that it “accepts Professor Diána Bánáti’s decision to resign from the ILSI Europe Board of Directors with regret” and reiterated its insistence that ILSI is not a lobbying group.

Nature is the most prestigious science magazine in Great Britain and, arguably, anywhere, but I thought I was simply stating the obvious.


Oct 25 2010

Happy Halloween: UNICEF-Canada partners with Cadbury

A Canadian reader, Professor Amir Attaran of the Law and Medicine Faculties at the University of Ottawa, has just discovered UNICEF-Canada’s Halloween partnership with Cadbury:

I was not made cheery this morning when at the grocery store, I found UNICEF’s name and logo plastered all over the packages of Halloween candy.  On closer investigation, UNICEF Canada have struck a three-year partnership with Cadbury (this is the final year) where UNICEF lends its name and logo to advertising some 4 million packages of Cadbury candies each year.  In exchange, Cadbury donated some money ($500k) to UNICEF for schools in Africa.

The UNICEF Cadbury “Schoolhouse Project” (now closed) collected donations from Canadian communities for children in Africa.

UNICEF continues to collect funds for such purposes and has declared October 31 as National UNICEF Day.

Remember UNICEF’s orange trick-or-treat boxes? They helped make October 31 National UNICEF Day – and taught scores of Canadians that they can make a vital difference around the world. Today, it’s easier than ever to have an impact on the lives of the world’s most vulnerable children.

But UNICEF-Canada is aggressively seeking donations from corporate partners, apparently with little regard for what they sell.

Invest in the world’s children today to make a world of difference tomorrow. On behalf of UNICEF Canada, we invite you to involve your organization in a rewarding partnership and unique business opportunity. UNICEF Canada designs exclusive customized initiatives that achieve real, measurable business results while meeting your humanitarian goals.

Enhance your brand, drive sales, increase revenues. UNICEF delivers….We have built direct relationships with governments, businesses and community leaders in every jurisdiction where UNICEF is present.

No other aid organization engenders greater trust. None has greater impact.

Make us part of your business strategy and join us in building a better world for children. For your bottom line, for the sake of our children and for the future of our world, there is no better investment.

As I keep saying, you cannot make this stuff up.

Candy?  Or, UNICEF’s other Canadian partners such as Pizza Nova?

I know the argument: It’s Halloween and kids will eat candy anyway, so why not make some money from it.  This is the same argument used to promote sales of junk food in vending machines in U.S. schools.

But should UNICEF-Canada be doing this?  Canadians: how about doing some serious talking about this embarrassing partnership.

Addition, October 26:  Here’s what Cadbury gets for its $500,000 donation:

A cornerstone of the partnership is the dedication of significant space on approximately 4.3 million boxes and bags of mini-treats each year to raise awareness about UNICEF and the Schools for Africa programme. Cadbury Adams will also use point of purchase displays, flyers, advertising and the Web to promote the programme and its toll-free number.

Oct 8 2010

Food company responses to obesity

Jeffrey Koplan (Emory) and Kelly Brownell (Yale) have a commentary in JAMA (October 6) titled “Response of the food and beverage industry to the obesity threat.”   They describe how the food and beverage industries:

  • Associate their products with health
  • Frame the issues to emphasize balance or physical activity
  • Pick and choose the science
  • Reformulate products to make them appear healthier
  • Defend themselves and attack critics

Sound familiar?  For details, see  Michele Simon’s excellent book, Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back (Nation Books, 2006).

Addition, October 10: Lori Dorfman of the Berkeley Media Studies Group reminds me about its 2007 Framing Brief, “Reading between the lines: understanding food industry responses to concerns about nutrition.”  This group’s publications are always terrific resources for educating and taking action on food issues.


Oct 6 2010

Today’s oxymoron: Alcohol companies support breast cancer research

I can’t quite get my head around this one.  According to USA Today (October 5), some makers of alcohol drinks have joined the “pink” campaigns to raise awareness of breast cancer and more research.

Chambord’s website notes that its Pink Your Drink campaign has raised more than $50,000 in donations for the Breast Cancer Network of Strength and other patient groups.

Mike’s Hard Lemonade has given $500,000 over the past two years to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, company President Phil O’Neil says. The company was inspired by the loss of an employee named Jacqueline who died after a long battle with breast cancer.

But alcohol is clearly implicated as a cause of breast cancer.  USA Today discusses that connection—to imbibe or not—in another article in the same issue.

Alcohol raises complicated public health issues for women.  On the one hand, moderate drinking reduces the risk of heart disease.  On the other, it raises the risk of breast cancer.

That is why dietary guidelines suggest no more than one drink a day for women, with a drink defined as 5 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer, and 1.5 ounces of hard liquor.

But alcohol companies using donations to pink causes as marketing?  Could we expect breast cancer research sponsored by alcohol companies to focus on the relationship of alcohol to breast cancer?  Is this any different than cigarette companies paying for lung cancer research?

Ethics, anyone?

Sep 28 2010

FTC says no to POM Wonderful advertising claims

The newly alive Federal Trade Commission (FTC) says POM Wonderful must stop making unscientific claims for the health benefits of pomegranate juice.  POM juice, the FTC says, has not been shown to prevent or treat heart disease, prostate cancer, or erectile dysfunction, as the company claims:

  • “SUPER HEALTH POWERS! … 100% PURE POMEGRANATE JUICE. … Backed by $25 million in medical research.  Proven to fight for cardiovascular, prostate and erectile health.”
  • “NEW RESEARCH OFFERS FURTHER PROOF OF THE HEART-HEALTHY BENEFITS OF POM WONDERFUL JUICE.  30% DECREASE IN ARTERIAL PLAQUE … 17% IMPROVED BLOOD FLOW … PROMOTES HEALTHY BLOOD VESSELS … ”
  • “Prostate health…You have to be on pomegranate juice.  You have a 50 percent chance of getting [prostate cancer].  Listen to me.  It is the one thing that will keep your PSA normal.  You have to drink pomegranate juice.  There is nothing else we know of that will keep your PSA in check. … It’s also 40 percent as effective as Viagra.”
  • Clinical studies prove that POM Juice prevents, reduces the risk of, and treats, erectile dysfunction.

The complaint cites advertisements in the Washington Post and Fitness magazine, as well as this ad:

According to the New York Times account, the POM Wonderful folks are not taking this lightly.  They have spent a reported $34 million on research to “prove” that POM has antioxidant activity.

But I could have told them that before they spent a dime!  All fruits and vegetables have antioxidant activity.

I love using POM research as an example of how easy it is to design studies to give you the answer you want.  POM research demonstrates that pomegranate juice has antioxidant activity and acts as an antioxidant in the body.  Of course it does.

But so does every other fruit and vegetable and what this research does not do is compare the effects of pomegranate juice to those of orange juice, for example.     That’s the issue I talked about in my November 19, 2007 post titled “The (silly) battle of the antioxidants.”

Which fruit has the most antioxidants? The latest report says blueberries, followed by cranberries, apples, red grapes, and finally green grapes. What? Pomegranates don’t even make the top five? In this case, who knows? The investigators were testing a new assay method and those were the only fruits they examined.

And then there is the troubling matter of whether antioxidants make a demonstrable difference to health.  The European Food Standards Agency has been turning down health claims for antioxidants like mad.  As I discussed on April 16, 2009:

Here’s another example from the pomegranate folks.  They do brilliant advertising, but this time the British are complaining that these marketers went too far when they posted billboards stating that pomegranate (“antioxidant powerhouse”) juice will help you cheat death.  The British advertising standards agency balked.  Here too, pesky science gets in the way.  Studies not only fail to support a benefit of antioxidants but sometimes show harm.

If only that pesky science weren’t so inconvenient, marketers could do as they please.  The New York Times reports that the POM folks are not taking this lightly.  They are suing the FTC—not because they are claiming they have science on their side, but because they think their health claims, believable or not, are protected by the First Amendment.

Did our founding fathers really introduce the First Amendment to protect the right of marketers to make unsubstantiated health claims?  Do our judges really believe this?  Is this a good case for taking on this question.  Lawyers: get to work!

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