Last week, after I declared my refusal to watch the HBO series, “Weight of the Nation,” Marlene Schwartz, of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity (a group featured in the program) politely suggested that I give all four episodes a chance before I criticize. I did. It was even worse than I feared.
Posts Tagged ‘Rudd Center’
While most media outlets dubbed it the “Happy Meal toy ban,” the ordinance passed in San Francisco last year didn’t ban anything. The law just placed a few reasonable nutrition guidelines (a maximum of 600 calories per meal and limits on fat and salt, for example) for restaurants using free toy incentives to lure kids into a lifetime of bad eating habits. In a rare victory for children’s health, the bill passed despite heavy lobbying by McDonald’s. Read rest at Grist…
The following op-ed was recently published in numerous newspapers across the country through McClatchy-Tribune News Service.
When it comes to food, everybody’s got an opinion. Same goes for parenting. Mix the two together and you’ve got the makings of a culture war. Witness the recent scuffle between Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama over the White House’s rather tame Let’s Move campaign aimed at ending childhood obesity.
So last month, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest announced it was filing a class action lawsuit to stop McDonald’s from using Happy Meal toys to market to children, the fierce and ugly backlash against the mother of two who was brave enough to attach her name to the case was predictable.
Continue reading →
My latest article on AlterNet is entitled: “How Junk Food Giant PepsiCo Is Buying Up High-Ranking Experts to Look Like a Leader in Health and Nutrition.”
And the subhead is just as fun: “Pepsi’s strategy: Create a research environment so scientists and public health experts don’t feel out of place at the corporate HQ of sugar, salt and fat.”
You can read it there and add your comments.
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.
You’ve got to hand it to the food industry. They certainly know how to get the attention of the White House just when they need it most. As announced today by Michelle Obama herself, the nation’s leading food companies have made yet another pledge, this one in the form of an agreement signed with the Partnership for a Healthier America, an off-shoot of the First Lady’s Let’s Move campaign.
Mrs. Obama said that 16 corporations accounting for up to 25 percent of the American food supply chain would trim a total of one trillion calories by 2012 and 1.5 trillion calories by 2015. Sounds impressive, but I am not really sure exactly what it means. Trim calories, from what? OK, to be fair, here’s how the press release attempts to explain it:
Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation manufacturing companies will pursue their calorie reduction goal by developing and introducing lower-calorie options, changing recipes where possible to lower the calorie content of current products, or reducing portion sizes of existing single-serve products.
First off, who is the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation? Good question, certainly sounds official, but a quick perusal of the website reveals a virtual who’s who of Big Food: Coca-Cola, General Mills, Kraft Foods, and of course, PepsiCo, whose CEO Indra Nooyi serves as vice chair. (Kellogg’s CEO got the top spot and was at today’s White House briefing, see leadership.)
And you gotta love this mission statement: “Our mission is to try to help reduce obesity – especially childhood obesity – by 2015.” Try to help? Reduce? Especially? Sounds pretty lame. But I digress.
The member companies are pledging to do three things: One, develop and introduce lower-calorie options. But if they are making new products, isn’t that actually adding calories to the food supply? Next, for current products, where possible they will lower calorie content. When is it not possible? Why, when Big Food says so, that’s when.
Finally, they will reduce portion sizes. Now all of the member companies are packaged food manufacturers, not restaurants, where portion sizes are out of control and where Americans spend roughly half of their food dollars. So this just means that we might get more products like the current “100-calorie packs,” which just encourages more packaging waste, at higher prices to boot.
As this is just another voluntary promise by industry, how will we even know if the companies follow through? No worries, they thought of everything. As the press release explains, under the agreement, “the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation will report annually to the Partnership on the progress that we are making toward this pledge.” So I guess that should cover it.
What’s going on here should be obvious to anyone who has been paying close attention to food industry tactics over the past few years. It’s certainly no coincidence that this announcement comes on the heels of last week’s report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity. Indeed, with less than 5 business days in between the two media events, the memory of that comprehensive report, containing 70 policy recommendations is now conveniently overshadowed by Big Food’s promise of 1.5 trillion fewer calories. That’s industry math: 1.5 trillion beats 70.
But before we toss the Task Force report into the historical dust bin, let’s see which policy recommendations might have gotten Big Food upset. First there’s # 2.6: “All media and entertainment companies should limit the licensing of their popular characters to food and beverage products that are healthy.” Uh oh, that could mean no more SpongeBob Squarepants Popsicles, that would stink.
Then there’s # 2.7: “The food and beverage industry and the media and entertainment industry should jointly adopt meaningful, uniform nutrition standards for marketing food and beverages to children, as well as a uniform standard for what constitutes marketing to children.” Meaningful? Uniform? Those are dirty words to Big Food. They prefer words like “try” and “reduce.”
Oh and they really don’t like recommendation # 2.9: “If voluntary efforts to limit the marketing of less healthy foods and beverages to children do not yield substantial results, the FCC could consider revisiting and modernizing rules on commercial time during children’s programming.” What was that, the FCC? Why, that’s an actual government agency named in the report, how did that happen?
Food companies that market to children (including pledgers Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, and PepsiCo) are afraid that Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign might result in actual policy making, otherwise known as laws and regulations, those things that government agencies make when they are doing their jobs.
Every so often, when the threat of government regulation rears its ugly head, the food industry pounces on it to beat it down, by announcing new and improved promises, pledges, commitments, initiatives, partnerships, or coalitions at just the right time, all aimed at keeping government at bay and the public convinced that they are acting responsibly.
Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University called it right when he told the Wall Street Journal that this move was little more than public relations:
This is where the market is taking these companies anyway, and I don’t know that this represents much of a concession. I also believe that the motive behind this is to fight off government regulation by creating the appearance of voluntary changes by the industry.
Sadly, this time industry made sure that government came on board even before the announcement. At the press conference, Michelle Obama predicted, “In the weeks and months to come, we expect to hear more announcements regarding specific steps on reducing sugar, fat and sodium in the foods that our children eat.” Great, brace yourself for even more PR and empty promises.
If I was skeptical about the likely success of Let’s Move before, I am downright cynical now.
Post-script: For a somewhat less cynical viewpoint, see Marion Nestle’s blog post.
Thank you for your recent e-mail regarding the. Dean Alpern has asked the Office of Public Affairs to respond, since you refer to a recent news release which we issued.
The Yale MD/PhD Program is funded by many different public, corporate and private sources. However none of the donors can influence the content – or compromise the quality – of the program, which is considered one of the most rigorous in the country. For almost 200 years, the Yale School of Medicine has maintained the highest standards of academic and research integrity. The nutritional research conducted by Yale clinical scientists addresses important diseases including metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity.
Only through the generosity of our many donors can Yale School of Medicine continue to push the frontiers of clinical research and translational medicine.
Charles Robin Hogen Œ70)
Deputy Director of Public Affairs
So let’s write directly to Robin and explain that why this won’t cut it.
A few weeks ago I wrote about how the soda and snack-food giant PepsiCo had bought a piece of the Yale School of Medicine (my alma mater – MPH, 1990) by funding a “lab” and a fellowship program. Earlier this week, the Yale Daily News reported, “Critics fizz over Pepsi Gift.” In that article, we learn part of the price tag for the sell-out:
These activists have criticized the soft-drink giant’s decision in December to sponsor a graduate fellowship in the school’s M.D.-Ph.D. program, worth $250,000 over five years, for students who want to perform research on nutrition and obesity-related diseases.
Really, only $50K a year? That’s a pretty cheap price for a company that netted $1.7 billion in one quarter of 2009. If Yale is going to sell its good name, maybe they could negotiate a better deal than that.
But the price to pay may be higher in bad public relations. It’s one thing for the school newspaper to raise questions, but today, the Wall Street Journal, the nation’s most respected business voice took notice. In an opinion piece entitled, “Boola Moolah! Food Fight at Yale,” Eric Felten writes:
PepsiCo is finding out just how hard it is to appease the nutritionistas. Two weeks ago the company was getting kudos in the New Haven Register for setting up a healthy-eating research lab at Yale’s commercial Science Park; for putting a quarter of a million dollars into a doctoral-student fellowship in obesity studies at the Yale School of Medicine; and for agreeing to limit the calories in drinks it sells in schools. “World gets Healthier (Pepsi) Generation” raved the Register’s headline. By this week the cola and snack conglomerate found itself getting smacked for the same good deeds. “Critics fizz over Pepsi gift” was the headline in Monday’s Yale Daily News, reporting that activists are accusing the university of selling out for a few soda-stained dollars. Michele Simon, a Yale School of Public Health grad, was perfectly aghast that her alma mater would have anything to do with such merchants of death: “They own Cheetos, for God’s sake.”
Yale’s School of Medicine dean replied soothingly that the arrangement is “perfectly ethical”—and there’s no reason to doubt that. We aren’t likely to see journal articles flowing from Pepsi Scholars documenting the salubrious properties of high-fructose corn syrup.
The WSJ then hits the nail on the head:
Still, Yale isn’t quite as innocent here as the administration makes out. The Yale Bowl could be renamed PepsiCo Stadium and there would be no suggestion that the arrangement was anything but a mercenary one—a straightforward advertising deal. But the corporate naming game has different implications when it invades the tweedier precincts of campus. When a business gets its name worked into the academic fabric of a school, it is buying something more than a place to slap a corporate insignia. There is the implication that the firm is a partner in the intellectual enterprise.
What both papers fail to mention is that the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, frequently critical of Big Food, is housed at Yale, so it’s hard to view PepsiCo’s motives as pure. With this latest bad press, maybe the powers that be at both Yale HQ and the medical school will see how stupid this move was. It hardly seems worthy of one fellowship.
Also see how the Yale Daily Journal story got spun on the MSNBC web site in an article somewhat mis-titled, “Yale Takes Heat for Pepsi-Funded Obesity Study.”
Please share these articles with others to help keep the pressure on Yale to end this ill-conceived deal. Also, email medical school Dean Robert J. Alpern and/or sign the petition at Change.org. Thank you!
This is really embarrassing. I attended the Yale School of Public Health back when it was still a separate department within the Yale School of Medicine. I just received my alumni newsletter, only to find out that Yale Medicine has teamed up with soft drink and snack food giant PepsiCo to create a “research laboratory” in Science Park, which is adjacent to Yale’s campus.
What will sort of alleged science will this Orwellian place produce? Why, the “development of healthier food and beverage products,” what else? But that’s not all. It seems that Yale’s price tag was a tad higher. To complete the sell-out, PepsciCo is also sponsoring a fellowship in Yale’s M.D.-Ph.D. Program. According to the company’s press release, “the endowment will specifically fund work that focuses on nutritional research, such as metabolic syndrome, diabetes and obesity.” Just great. Here’s how Dr. Robert Alpern, Dean and Ensign Professor at Yale School of Medicine justifies the deal:
PepsiCo’s commitment to improving health through proper nutrition is of great importance to the well-being of people in this country and throughout the world. We are delighted that they are expanding their research in this area and that they have chosen Yale as a partner for this endeavor. Extending this partnership to the M.D.-Ph.D. Program represents a visionary investment in one of the finest researcher training programs in the world and thus to the future of science.
Sickening. And ironic since Yale is also the home of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which is fast becoming the nation’s leader in the field. I can’t help wondering if this is a coincidence, of if PepsiCo figured this was a good way to neutralize the Rudd Center’s increasing influence over policies detrimental to the company’s bottom line. Let’s take, for starters, how Rudd is gaining national expertise on soda taxes, as evidenced by numerous articles penned by Rudd director Kelly Brownell such as this one published last year in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Also making me suspicious is another Yale / PepsiCo connection. When the Rudd Center was first formed, Derek Yach, formerly with the World Health Organization and tobacco control hero, was on staff there. Then in 2007, to the great shock and dismay of public health advocates around the world, he became PepsiCo’s Director of Global Health Policy, whatever that means.
And now here he is (second from left, standing), posing with numerous other smiling PepsiCo executives, side by side with Yale School of Medicine faculty members. It’s almost like he has returned to buy out his previous company.
Now I understand that everyone is hurting for money these days. The dean whines here about the university’s projected 25 percent drop in its endowment for 2009. But really, I don’t think that can possibly justify this arrangement. It’s not like the alternative was laying off faculty. The alternative was not affiliating with the purveyor of Cheetos and Mountain Dew.
Even though I always say I never learned a damn thing about nutrition at Yale Public Health, at least I could say I went to Yale. But now I am not sure I want to anymore. After writing my book, I admit to being pretty jaded and not easily shocked by industry influence, but this one really hurts. Who can I even complain to? Is nothing off limits to corporate control?
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