Posts Tagged ‘corporate sponsorships’

Yale Alumni Magazine covers PepsiCo / Yale School of Medicine partnership controversy

This past March, I blogged about how soda and snack food giant PepsiCo formed a partnership with the Yale School of Medicine, where I earned my public health degree. The grant included $250,000 for a 5-year research fellowship to be awarded to an MD/PhD student.

That post apparently set off a chain reaction of coverage of the deal, first in the Yale Daily News (“Critics fizz over Pepsi gift”), followed by the Wall Street Journal (“Boola Moolah! Food Fight at Yale”) and on the San Francisco Chronicle health blog.

Now, in the current issue of Yale Alumni Magazine, fellow alum Carole Bass pens “Critics question Pepsi partnership,” quoting me and others on the wisdom of Yale linking arms with the nation’s largest promoter of sugar, salt, and fat. Adding to the irony, Yale is already home to the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity, which is headed up by Kelly Brownell, a frequent critic of Big Food.

And anyway, what sort of research could possibly come of this largesse that didn’t benefit PespiCo? Playing defense in the article is Yale School of Medicine Dean Robert Alpern: “There are numerous safeguards in place to protect the integrity of our research.”

It’s probably a bad sign when you have to use the word “safeguard” to defend taking money. Safeguards are usually for doing risky things, like skateboarding and skydiving, not philanthropy.

Alpern also responds to those who worry that the medical school’s scientific principles may have been sacrificed in the name of Cheetos and Mountain Dew. Not so, Alpern assures my fellow alumni: “PepsiCo will have no involvement in who is chosen for the fellowship or the project to which the student is assigned.” I for one am not assured.

The article ends aptly with a quote from Professor Jerome Kassirer, expert in conflicts of interest at Tufts School of Medicine: (Could the author find no such expert at Yale?)

The problem is that it’s impossible to know whether the money given to the school can in some way have an influence on what people in the [nutrition] department might say about PepsiCo products.

And that’s just for starters.

Back in April I posted the lame response I got from Yale’s public affairs office upon signing a petition started on Change.org, which now has more than 1,000 signatures. But let’s keep the pressure on. You can either sign the petition or email Dean Alpern directly.

And thanks to reporter Carole Bass for a job well done.

Family doctors debate if they should take Coke money, after they took it

In this week’s Health Blog, the Wall Street Journal’s Katherine Hobson asks readers to chime in on a “debate” among family doctors over the ethics of corporate sponsorship of medicine.

But first, the backdrop. Last year, the American Academy of Family Physicians announced “a new corporate partnership program” and its first partner was to be The Coca-Cola Company. Soon thereafter, about 20 doctors resigned from the organization in protest, drawing attention to the matter by Food Politics author Marion Nestle as well as advocacy groups such as the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood. (Full disclosure: I serve on CCFC’s steering committee.)

The grant amount was described as being in the “strong six figures” by AAFP. Here is how the group described the partnership in its October 2009 press release:

The Consumer Alliance is a program that allows corporate partners like The Coca-Cola Company to work with the AAFP to educate consumers about the role their products can play in a healthy, active lifestyle. As part of this partnership, The Coca-Cola Company is providing a grant to the AAFP to develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for FamilyDoctor.org, an award-winning consumer health and wellness resource.

Consumer education? That must explain how a search for “Coca-Cola” on FamilyDoctor.org, brings up helpful content on hydration like how “even caffeinated drinks, such as coffee, tea and soda, count toward your daily water intake,” and why sports drinks are useful for athletes, and how safe the artificial sweeteners aspartame and saccharine are. All of this brought to you by Coca-Cola under the guise of consumer education. Even the disclaimers on each of these pages is misleading:

This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.

That makes it sound as if the Coca-Cola is just paying someone else to do the writing. But it appears the company is directing the substance of the content as well, since the verbiage is pretty similar to that found on Coca-Cola’s own website on these very topics. (See for example, the company’s page on sweetener “facts and myths.)

It’s bad enough for a medical trade organization (and “award-winning” website) to be bought off by American’s number one promoter of unhealthy beverages, especially to children, but now apparently, almost a year later, the issue has turned into fertile ground for navel gazing as a way of justifying the move after the fact.

This week, AAFP’s journal, the Annals of Family Medicine, has published two perspectives on the matter. One penned by Dr. Howard Brody, AAFP member and director of the Institute for the Medical Humanities at the University of Texas Medical Branch. He’s not in favor of the idea:

The physician has a duty to prescribe medications or make dietary recommendations based on scientific evidence. The companies have an interest in selling more beverages, or more drugs, regardless of the evidence.

Precisely. In contrast, AAFP president, Dr. Lori Heim, sees no need to assume conflict of interest:

To gauge an individual or organization’s ethics, one must view its behavior over time, define the goal of that behavior and compare the outcome with the mission and values. Within this context, one can determine whether the assumption or appearance of conflict of interest or ethical lapse was, in fact, correct.

What? She lost me somewhere between outcome and values.

Taking money from Coca-Cola is not a science experiment that you watch over time, gather data, and then publish the analyzed results. But if one were to approach the issue that way, there’s no shortage of evidence of Coca-Cola’s “ethical lapses.” Whether your concern is marketing to children, labor abuses, or contaminating water supplies in developing nations, Coca-Cola would be the one company you’d not choose as a partner. Journalist Michael Blanding has written an entire book called The Coke Machine: The Dirty Truth Behind the World’s Favorite Soft Drink, due out in September, which chronicles these misdeeds and more.

But why, almost a year later, is the AAFP journal publishing what amounts to an academic debate between two doctors over an issue that has obviously already been decided? I realize that wheels of academic publishing turn very slowly and that perhaps these articles were submitted months ago, but why was there no public debate before AAFP took the money?

All this does now is give credence to idea that taking corporate money is a worthy subject of debate in the annals of medical journals, right up there with questions like, what sort of treatment a doctor should give patient X or Y. What about those 20 member doctors who resigned in protest last year? Where are their opinions published in any medical journal? This no debate at all. It’s simply an effort to whitewash the situation so now AAFP can say: See, we grappled with the issue in our journal under the heading “Ethical Issues.” Oh and by the way, we’re keeping Coke’s cash.

As I blogged about in March, Coca-Cola isn’t the only soda company seeking to infiltrate the medical establishment. The Yale School of Medicine has partnered with PepsiCo to allow the soft drink and snack food giant to fund a research lab and fellowship. Where does this end? At what point will we no longer have truly science-driven research institutions and unfettered medical professionals available to help Americans sort through the confusing clutter of health and nutrition information? Or has that time already come? Let’s hope not.

You can send a letter to AAFP asking them to end the Coke deal here, on the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s website.

Big Food Goes North to Buy Out Dietitians of Canada Too

Some things in Canada just seem so much more sane than here in the states. Better (any) health care of course is the most touted reason to move north of the border.

If you’re like me and many others fed up with the American Dietetic Association’s ongoing affiliation with the likes of Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and McDonald’s, (see previous post and comments) you might wonder if this insane hypocrisy is something unique to America. You might think that dietitians in a country humane enough to provide its citizens with decent health care would steer clear of Big Food influence over its nutrition professionals. I am sorry to report that this is not the case.

As recently described in painful detail by a Canadian dietitian blogger (Nutrition Nibbles) Sybil Hebert, the ADA equivalent trade group, Dietitians of Canada (DC) “partners with industry, including Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Monsanto, and Nestle.” As a new member, Ms. Hebert was not happy to learn this troubling information, and inspired by Marion Nestle’s call to ADA members on the same topic, decided to make her distaste known with a letter of her own.

Her impressive missive details numerous examples of industry partnerships such as raking in over $200,000 dollars from corporate sponsorships, including the pharmaceutical industry. She concludes with this reasonable request to the organization’s leadership:

Board of Directors, as long as DC continues to align itself with food, beverage and pharmaceutical industries, and rely on these corporations for funding, it will never be respected, and neither will I. As a member of the purported “nation-wide voice of dietitians,” I hope my voice, and my concerns, are heard, and that DC will carefully review its advertising and sponsorship policies to recognize the many conflicts of interest that exist, and their consequences, and take steps to minimize them in order to restore DC’s credibility.

Well said. I’ve heard from many dietitians in the U.S. who are no longer members of the ADA for this very reason, that the organization cannot be respected as long as it is compromised.

Unfortunately, the DC leadership has not taken too kindly to Ms. Hebert’s request, and in particular to the fact that she has posted her letter on her blog. Despite (or maybe because of) the many comments in support, Ms. Hebert has received more than one email asking her to take down the post. 

What is the leadership of Dietitians of Canada so afraid of? It’s certainly no secret that the organization partners with industry. It only took me a minute to find the program for DC’s upcoming annual conference in Montreal, which lists among its sponsors: General Mills, Danone, Unilever, PepsiCo, and a plethora of drug companies. In just one day you can attend the Kellogg Breakfast, followed by the Kellogg Nutrition Symposium, and then take a Kellogg break. Maybe the Dietitians of Canada should consider changing its name to Dietitians of Kellogg. Then again, maybe that would make all those other corporate sponsors too upset.

This isn’t the first time the trade group has been called out for its conflict of interest. Dr. Yoni Freedhoff is a family doctor in Ottawa who has wondered (among other conflicts) what the heck the Dietitians of Canada was doing putting out a joint press release last year with the Dairy Farmers of Canada making nutrition recommendations that essentially served as a “milk advertisement” (his words).

Professional associations such as the American Dietetic Association and Dietitians of Canada must renounce their corporate affiliations and stop taking money from the very companies that are undermining their own members’ ability to do help people eat right. Until they do so, these groups risk becoming little more than a tool of corporate interests, which is exactly what Big Food wants.

We need more dietitians like Sybil Hebert taking a public stand. Please post comments both here and on her blog in support and if you’re a member of either the American Dietetic Association or Dietitians of Canada voice your concerns directly to the leadership. If you’re no longer a member, tell them why you left. Together, our voices can make a difference.

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Contact Michele Simon: michele@eatdrinkpolitics.com

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