by Marion Nestle
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.

  • Oh well, I guess we’re on our own. We should probably eat less, move more, eat more fruits and vegetables and not pay too much attention to all the “studies of the day” — never know who’s behind them.

    Ken Leebow

    P.S. Thanks for all the good information.

  • Ashley

    Thanks for this post. The corporate affiliations you note above are the main reason why, although I am a registered dietitian, I am no longer a member of the American Dietetic Association. Simply flipping through an issue of the ADA Journal or ADA Times illustrates this problem- ads on every other page for diet coke, Wish Bone salad dressing, Betty Crocker, General Mills, Smart Balance, Kellog’s, Pepsi. When Coca-Cola started mailing flyers to my home, addressed to my RD credentials, advertising a diet coke campaign for heart health or something, I knew ADA had sold my address. The hard part is that the ADA rules dictate that RDs must be a member of ADA in order to serve on the boards of their local-and state-level dietetics groups. This puts us between a rock and a hard place professionally.

    Frustrating stuff…

  • So would it be better if these food companies did NOT do their ‘posturing’ and ‘reinventing’ of their product in a healthier or benevolent fashion?

    For example, you say Coca-Cola is just trying to give itself a good image by donating 10 million bucks to a hospital. Well, I would rather them donate the money with ulterior motives than NOT donate it at all.

    I would rather a food company do the bear minimum amount with a health agency to save face than not do anything at all.

    I mean, come on, why look a gift horse in the mouth?

  • JMT

    Wow, I am glad to see him taking on food issues. I find his thinking on tobacco to be the bee’s knees. I had Mike for a class on Social and Behavioral Sciences that did something like ‘change my life’ – dramatic but true. 🙂

  • Anthro


    And next time you drop your wallet while walking ahead of me, I’ll just pick it up and pretend I didn’t see you drop it–why look a gift horse in the mouth, eh?

    @ Ken L

    Many of the “studies of the day” are very useful and definitely add to the body of scientific knowledge. One does need to know how to read and interpret a study, of course, as we can’t be experts in all things. That’s why we read this and other science-based blogs. Your advice is fine for the well-informed, but public-health experts are trying to reach all segments of the population, especially those who suffer from the abuses of the food/ag system and it’s political flunkies.


    Thanks for mentioning this blog–and for calling out these companies for their bottom-line behavior. Yes, I know it’s their job to forever increase quarterly results for the shareholders, so once again I’ll ask everyone to divest themselves of such stocks!

  • Barbara Rothkrug

    I agree with the authors. Letting coke, chevron, bottled water companies partner with health organizations, environmental organizations etc. just gives them “credits” they don’t deserve and protects their bottom line and their desire to maintain the status quo at our expense. I have examples of the last two–remember the “people of Chevron” who are for protecting the environment. Joshua tree national park partnered with a bottled water company and got a full page ad in national parks magazine and a very positive write-up in the editorial section.

  • THANK YOU MARION! This post reminded me that we really do vote with our dollars and I’m going to choose not to vote for Pepsi, Coke, etc.

  • Joseph Docu

    It’s not looking a gift horse in the mouth, as one poster asserts, but rather that the money corrupts the purpose of the organization in order to suit the corporate interests. Money talks, don’t you understand?

    For 10 million dollars, I’d take daily baths in High fructose corn “sugar.”

  • Daniel

    Sprite Spark Parks Project to invest $2 million to construct,
    refurbish and refresh more than 150 neighborhood parks, athletic
    fields, playgrounds and basketball courts in 2011

    Tomorrow they partner with the New York City Housing Authority
    and participate in a “Brush With Kindness” project to refurbish an NYCHA community center that offers afterschool and evening programs for children and teenagers.

  • @Anthro

    Dropping my wallet and you not returning it is not even remotely the same issue as the post here.

    And my point is this. These companies are going to sell their “junk” regardless of these donations. If coca-cola didn’t donate $10 mil to that hospital, what would have happened? Nothing…business as usual.

  • Shannan

    These companies only donate money to causes where they want their products to remain. It is time to say enough is enough, create an environment of real health. If hospitals and other “health” establishments stopped selling these items, these companies would feel the financial pain. Hard to stop selling the products when they donate to your establishment over and over. Seems to me this is not a “gift”, but something far from it!

  • This sounds a lot like partnerships between farm organizations and agribusiness. One example is in the checkoffs, where farmers selling wholesale pay in to help them advertise at the retail level. Other money is used for supportive research, which may help use up oversupply to help prices, but it adds to concentration and the lobby against fair prices. Related examples: National Corn Growers Association (but not American CGA), National Pork Producers Council, Farm Bureau, American Soybean Association, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (but not r-Calf).

  • Kathy

    Thank you, Dr. Nestle, for this post. I am new to your blog (just heard you interviewed on NPR). I too just decided to to skip my ADA membership this year (after 15 years of devoted membership). I’m SO tired of ADA saying their corporate sponsorships are “strictly regulated” and have no influence on ADAs policies. It doesn’t matter how strict the policies are — it looks horribly hypocritical to the public, and that’s what matters. I will continue be a regular reader of your blog — thanks again for your independent, common sense approach to nutrition and health.

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