by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Conflicts-of-interest

Apr 22 2009

Food industry self-monitoring

If it’s one thing the food industry does really well, it’s surely to pat itself on the back.  Something called The Ethisphere Institute (motto: “Good.  Smart.  Business. Profit.”) has produced a list of the world’s most ethical companies, among them Kellogg’s, Danone, PepsiCo, and Unilever.  How did Ethisphere do this?  It analyzed data from the companies.  I’m guessing it didn’t include marketing to children or misleading health claims as ethical criteria.

And food company representatives have gotten together to establish guidelines for funding food and nutrition research so as to prevent conflicts of interest.  The guidelines make sense – keep everything transparent and stay out of the way of research and publication – but do not address what I see as the most serious consequence of food industry sponsorship: setting up research studies to  inevitably yield results that favor the sponsor’s products.

This, I can assure you, is remarkably easy to do and happens all the time (see, for example, my post on Açaí).

Yes, food and nutrition research is difficult to do and interpret.  That is why independent funding is essential.  At least that’s how I see it.  You?

Apr 10 2009

Is free-range pork more contaminated than industrial pork?

My e-mail inbox is flooded with copies of an op-ed from today’s New York Times arguing that pigs running around outside have “higher rates” of Salmonella, toxoplasma, and, most alarming, trichina than pigs raised in factory farms. The writer,  James McWilliams, is a prize-winning historian at Texas State San Marcos whose forthcoming book is about the dangers of the locavore movement to the future of food.

I put “higher rates” in quotation marks because that is not what the study measured.  The study on which McWilliams based his op-ed is published in Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The investigators actually measured “seropositivity” (antibodies) in the pigs’ blood.  But the presence of antibodies does not necessarily mean that the animals – or their meat – are infected.  It means that the free-range pigs were exposed to the organisms at some point and developed immunity to them.  The industrial pigs were not exposed and did not develop immunity to these microorganisms.  But you would never know that from reading the op-ed.   How come?

Guess who paid for the study?  The National Pork Board, of course.

The Center for a Livable Future at Johns Hopkins has much to say about all this.  My point, as always, is that sponsored studies are invariably designed in ways that produce results favorable to the sponsor.    In this case, the sponsor represents industrial pork producers.

April 14 update:  the editors of the New York Times have added a note to the electronic version of Professor McWilliams’ op-ed pointing out the National Pork Board sponsorship of the study on which he based his piece.  And McWilliams rebuts arguments against his piece on the Atlantic Food Channel, while conceding that he may have gotten the science wrong.

Mar 21 2009

Is food the new tobacco?

The Rudd Center at Yale is devoted to establishing a firm research basis for obesity interventions.  Its latest contribution is a paper in the Milbank Quarterly from its director, Kelly Brownell, and co-author Kenneth Warner, an equally distinguished anti-smoking researcher from the University of Michigan.  Its provocative title: The perils of ignoring history: Big Tobacco played dirty and millions died.  How similar is Big Food?

The paper is getting much attention.  A spokesman for the American Dietetic Association, a group well known for its close ties to food companies, emphasizes that food is not tobacco.  Of course it’s not.  But food companies often behave like tobacco companies, and not always in the public interest.  The Milbank paper provides plenty of documentation to back up the similarity.  Worth a look, no?

April 3 update: Evidently, FoodNavigator.com thinks so.  It is asking readers to file 100 word comments on issues raised by the paper by April 8.   And here are the comments.

Jan 28 2009

More on Bisphenol A

How serious a problem is Bisphenol A, the hormone-like substance that leaches from some plastic water bottles?  The answer: how would we know?  According to investigative reporter, David Case, most of the studies of bisphenol A toxicity are sponsored by corporations that spin the results.  Take a look at his most interesting January 14 report, The real story behind bisphenol A.

In theory, whoever is paying for a study should not matter.  In practice, the sponsor matters a lot.  It’s not that scientific investigators are corrupt; most aren’t.  But sponsorship – perhaps unconsciously – influences the design of studies as well as their interpretation.   According to Case, the bisphenol A studies are a good example of this phenomenon.  You can find other examples filed under Sponsorship.

Dec 26 2008

Do whole grains do any good?

At the request (and expense) of Kellogg’s, the Life Science Research Organization convened an expert panel to evaluate studies linking consumption of whole grains – as defined by FDA – to reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.  Using the FDA’s definition, the panel judged the studies insufficient to support a claim that whole grains reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease or diabetes.  The FDA defines whole grains as whole: grains that are ground, cracked, or flaked but include all the parts in their original proportions.  When the panel expanded the definition of whole grains to include supplements of bran, germ, or fiber, the results came out better.   Supplements work better than the real thing!  Kellogg’s must be pleased with the results of its investment.

Nov 7 2008

Dietary guidelines committee: conflicts of interest

Oh no, not again!  Merrill Goozner of the Integrity in Science project at Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) writes that six of the 13 members of the 2010 Dietary Guidelines committee, including the chair, get research support  or consulting fees from food or drug companies with vested interests in what the guidelines say.  CSPI had to dig up this information, as the sponsoring agencies did not disclose these potential conflicts of interest. 

Oct 31 2008

More fuss over bisphenol A

The FDA’s lack of concern (see previous post) about the safety of bisphenol A has now come under criticism from a subcommittee of its own science advisory board.  As described in USA Today, the board criticizes the FDA for relying too heavily on industry-funded studies and not holding the studies to rigorous scientific standards.    Here’s the board’s report.  An earlier story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal charged that the FDA used research – and a research summary -  provided by the plastics industry as the basis of its original conclusion that bisphenol A posed no problems.  It looks like this is turning out to be one of those unfortunate examples of industry interference with the risk assessment process.  The science of food toxicology is difficult enough without this sort of thing happening.  Alas.

Aug 20 2008

Industry funding has no effect on research quality!

I love the way sponsored science works. We now have data claiming that there is no difference in the quality of controlled clinical weight loss trials whether they are funded by industry or independently. The senior author on this comparative study is the very same person who was relieved of his responsibilities as head of a national obesity society because he wrote a letter opposing calorie labeling without disclosing that he was paid to do it (see previous post on this topic).  NIH paid for this study in part (the other parts aren’t attributed).  For this study, as the paper says, “Ethical approval is not required.”

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