by Marion Nestle

Search results: revolving door

Oct 14 2015

The Revolving Door: From CSPI to The Sugar Association?

Politico Morning Agriculture (behind a firewall, unfortunately) reported this morning that Bruce Silverglade has filed a letter on behalf of The Sugar Association objecting to the FDA’s proposal to put Added Sugars on food labels.

The objection is on procedural grounds.  The Sugar Association opposes the FDA’s labeling proposal and wants the agency to allow more time for public comment (and, of course, additional time for lobbying against the measure).

Silverglade is now an attorney at Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz.  He joined this firm after resigning from the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), where he had worked as director of legal affairs for more than 25 years.

CSPI has advocated for policies to reduce sugar intake for many years, and favors putting Added Sugars on labels (as I explained in a previous post).

The “Revolving Door”—-exchange of positions between the food industry and government—often raises uncomfortable questions.

This example, a move from a food advocacy group to The Sugar Association, is unusual.  And sad.

Jan 26 2015

Some thoughts about the Revolving Door

Joel Leftwich has left his job as senior director for PepsiCo’s public policy and government affairs team (since March 2013) to become staff director for the Senate Agriculture Committee now led by Pat Roberts (R-Kansas).

In some ways, it’s a perfectly logical appointment.  Before joining PepsiCo, Leftwich worked for Roberts as a legislative aide from 2005 to 2010 and as deputy staff director for the Ag Committee from 2011 to 2013.

But his connection to PepsiCo raises concerns.  The Ag committee will be dealing with several issues involving sodas and snack foods opposed by some members of Congress:

  • Reauthorization of WIC, the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program (its requirements for healthy foods are always under pressure).
  • Preservation of the school nutrition standards authorized by the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act (under attack by the food industry and its friends in Congress).
  • SNAP nutrition standards (there is a movement to make sodas ineligible for SNAP-EBT purchases).
  • Issuance of the 2015 dietary guidelines, always under pressure not to say anything direct about not drinking sodas.
  • Issuance of the new food labels.  The soda industry opposes putting in “added sugars.”   While this is FDA’s purview, not USDA’s, the Ag Appropriations Committee governs FDA’s appropriations.

And on the state level, it’s worth taking a look at what the Texas Commissioner of Agriculture is up to, courtesy of Bettina Siegel’s The Lunch Tray: “cupcake amnesty.”

Clearly, agricultural policies affect public health in highly prominent ways.

That’s why we need to do a much better job of connecting food policy to health policy.

And that’s why having a leading PepsiCo lobbyist in charge of agricultural committee staff raises serious concerns about conflict of interest.

Sep 30 2014

What do you think? Is the “Revolving Door” useful or conflicted?

My post about the “Revolving Door” elicited a thoughtful response from Jerry Hagstrom, Founder and Executive Editor of the immensely useful Hagstrom Report, to which I subscribe.

He writes: “You seem critical of the “revolving door” but I would ask the following:

  • What would you have these people do for employment when they leave government? If they are political appointees,  they can’t stay forever.
  • Shouldn’t they use their knowledge? Should they be expected to move into an entirely different field? Wouldn’t it be a shame for the professional world of food and agriculture to lose their expertise?
  • What about academics who take government jobs and then go back to academia? Don’t they learn how to get research grants? But their knowledge of how government works is considered valuable to universities and to students.
  • Do you see any problem with someone being in government and then going to work for a nongovernmental organization or a foundation or coming from an NGO or a foundation into government? That happens too and those institutions have agendas.

As a reporter I view all these people with a combination of faith and skepticism whether they are in government or out.

Good questions, with no easy answers.

Open Secrets provides many examples of government officials who become lobbyists for the industries they used to regulate.

Conflicts of interest are likely to be even greater for those who revolve the other way—from industry to government–and especially when former industry executives move to high-level positions in regulatory agencies.

If nothing else, I see the revolving door as giving the appearance of conflict of interest.

Readers: What do you think?  How would you respond to Jerry Hagstrom’s questions?

 

 

 

Sep 29 2014

The infamous “revolving door:” two recent examples

The Center for Responsive Politics’ Open Secrets website is the go-to source for information about undue corporate influence in Washington.

Among other juicy tidbits, it has some things to say about the “revolving door,” the trading of jobs between government and the industries it regulates.

Although the influence powerhouses that line Washington’s K Street are just a few miles from the U.S. Capitol building, the most direct path between the two doesn’t necessarily involve public transportation. Instead, it’s through a door—a revolving door that shuffles former federal employees into jobs as lobbyists, consultants and strategists just as the door pulls former hired guns into government careers.

Here are two recent examples:

  • According to the Hagstrom Report, Anne Cannon MacMillan, a deputy chief of staff to Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, left the USDA to become the director of government relations for Roll Global, the California company founded by Stewart and Lynda  Resnick, the owners of Pom Wonderful, Fiji water, and other brilliantly marketed food and beverage products.
  • Robert Post, left his post as acting director  of the USDA’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the agency that brings us the MyPlate food guide, to join the Chobani yogurt company, as its senior director for nutrition and regulatory affairs.

Former federal officials come to industry with deep knowledge of how the system works and how to beat it.   They also bring long lists of key contacts who know how to make Washington work in the new employer’s favor.

Oh yes.  They also get paid better.

Ethical?  Revolving door appointments follow the letter of the ethics law.  We can argue about whether they follow its spirit.

Dec 8 2008

Revolving door: USDA –> NRA

I love keeping track of the revolving door between government food agencies and the food industry.  Thanks to Food Chemical News for this latest example: Beth Johnson, interim undersecretary for food safety at USDA, resigned today to take a position as executive vice president of public affairs at the National Restaurant Association.

Let’s wish her well on the new job and hope she helps restaurant owners stay out of food safety troubles.

Nov 2 2007

The revolving door: better than ever!

Such things never cease to amaze. The Grocery Manufacturers of America, a lobbying and trade organization for the retail food industry, has just recruited Robert Brackett as its new senior vice president in charge of regulatory affairs. And who could possibly be better qualified. To take this job, Mr. Brackett will be leaving his position as director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, the part of FDA that deals with food issues. I hope they are paying him tons of money.

Oct 20 2014

Food professionals’ relationships with food companies: a Q and A

In the past few weeks, I’ve been sent several questions asking my opinion of food professionals’ relationships with food companies.   I thought I would deal with them at one time (all are edited for succinctness and clarity):

Q.  I am a food science student looking into career options in the food industry. I love food science and truly believe that processing food is a good idea that can positively impact the planet and its people.  I want to do something worthwhile,, but I still need to eat.  Can’t the food industry be changed from the inside? Can’t you advise good companies, people, or places where I could start my search? 

A.  I have met social entrepreneurs who strongly believe that businesses can be ethical, do good, and still make heaps of money.  Maybe so.  If you are going to try that route, I think it essential that the company be family or cooperatively owned, and not publicly traded.  You might take a look at food companies incorporated as Benefit Corporations. These are now authorized in about half the states to consider the interests of all stakeholders, not just shareholders, when making decisions.  They are different from B corporations certifying companies that meet certain sustainability criteria.

Many companies work hard to reduce their environmental impact.  But the real question is what they are doing about health impact.  Are they going overboard on health claims?  Are they marketing to children?  These are questions I’d want to ask.  In your shoes, I’d start by looking at companies making products that you like, feel good about, and would be proud to be associated with.   And then take a closer look at how the companies operate.   Working for food companies is always a good learning experience, but if you really want to change the world, you might be better off with a nonprofit agency.

Q.  I’m a graduate student in nutrition and I would like to know what recommendations you may have for students to navigate conflicts of interest with food companies when beginning a career.  I intend to pursue an academic career but am concerned that my credibility as a scientist could be compromised by my participation in industry-funded publications and research. 

A.  It’s great that you are asking such questions. From the standpoint of ethics, that’s an important first step.  You should most definitely publish your research, no matter how it is funded.  Be sure to disclose potential sources of funding bias and conflicts of interest.  While you are doing your research, you can take special care to control for potential biases—conscious and unconscious—in your study design, conduct, and interpretation to ensure that they are not influenced by the funder.  In searching for jobs, you might consider those in academia, government, and NGOs that are less likely to require you to compromise principles.  Finding such jobs may not be easy, but you will be OK if you are always ethically transparent and as straightforward about biases as it is possible to be.

Q.  Do you believe that relationships between the food industry and nutrition professional organizations like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the Association for Nutritional Science (ASN) are problematic? Why?

A.  Sponsorship by food product makers puts nutrition professionals in conflict of interest.   Nutritionists ought to be advising clients and the public about what to eat to stay healthy and prevent chronic disease.  This necessarily means promoting consumption of some foods but discouraging consumption of others.  Nutritionists cannot speak truth to clients and protect corporate sponsorship at the same time.  If nothing else, food industry sponsorship gives the appearance of conflict of interest and makes AND and ASN appear as arms of food company marketers.  But it also affects—or appears to affect–AND ’s and ASN’s positions on key issues in nutrition and health.  Overall, financial relationships between these organizations and their food industry sponsors undermines the credibility of their positions on food issues.

Q.  What sort of changes do you think the Academy needs to make in order to make food industry relationships more beneficial to its members and the public overall?

A.  Nutrition and food professional organizations need to establish a firewall between corporate sponsorship and content or opinion.  This requires setting up rigorous guidelines for what food companies can and cannot expect from their donations.  They should not, for example, be permitted to sponsor content sessions at meetings, not least because opinions expressed at sponsored sessions rarely appear objective.  The organizations should have complete control over how and where corporate donations and company logos are used.

Q.  How can relationships between health professionals and the food industry be beneficial for public health overall?

A.  The role of health professionals is to give the best advice possible about diet and health.  The role of food companies is to provide profits to shareholders.  These goals are not the same and are only rarely compatible.  In my experience, people who want to work for food companies to change corporate culture from within do so from good motives, but soon discover that corporate imperatives take precedence over health goals. If health professional organizations want their advice to be taken seriously, they must establish and adhere to rules and guidelines designed expressly to protect their integrity.

Q.  I read your post on the revolving door,  It seems to me that your underlying premise is the notion that any company that makes food is indicted as part of the big evil food conspiracy. Surely, you can’t really believe that. 

A.  Of course I don’t. But food companies are not social service agencies.   Their job—their legal responsibility—is to continuously expand sales and distribute ever-increasing profits to shareholders.   If they can do this and promote health at the same time, more power to them.  But people would be healthier eating food, not food products.  In our present system, products are far more profitable and the focus on them is rarely works in the interest of public health.

Food and nutrition professionals need to make a living.  Unfortunately, jobs in industry pay better–and sometimes a lot better–than jobs in government or NGOs.  That’s the real dilemma that underlies all of these questions.

Sep 11 2013

Why the public still distrusts GMOs: Nature Biotechnology gives the reasons

Nature Biotechnology, a research journal for biotechnology academics, has the most enlightened explanation I’ve seen recently about why genetically modified (GM) foods don’t go over well with the public (I discussed suchN reasons in detail in Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety).Its editorial states that despite years of evidence for the safety of eating GM foods,

Consumers are concerned about the close (some might say cushy) relationships between regulators and companies. They are concerned about food safety data being difficult to obtain from regulatory agencies. The revolving door between agribusiness and regulatory agencies and the amounts spent on political lobbying also raise red flags. Even academics have fallen in the public’s esteem, especially if there’s a whiff of a company association or industry funding for research.

Of course, the public’s misgivings about GM food go beyond just the risk to health. Corporate control of the food supply, disenfranchisement of smallholder farmers, the potential adverse effects of GM varieties on indigenous flora and fauna, and the ‘contamination’ of crops grown on non-GM or organic farms all play into negative perceptions. And for better or worse, GM food is now inextricably linked in the public consciousness with Monsanto, which has seemingly vied with big tobacco as the poster child for corporate greed and evil.

What are industry and academic scientists to do about such attitudes?

 Changing them will require a concerted and long-term effort to develop GM foods that clearly provide convincing benefits to consumers—something that seed companies have conspicuously failed to do over the past decade.

Well, yes.  This was the situation in 2003 when I first wrote Safe Food, and nothing had changed by the second edition in 2010.  Or by now, apparently.

This industry still depends on Golden Rice to save its reputation.  Maybe it ought to start working on some of the other issues mentioned in this editorial.