Today’s statement of concern comes from Debra Riedesel, RD, LD (Twitter handle: @NutritionistaRD):
Surrounded by Conflict of Interest, What’s a Dietitian to Do?
“It was my dream, at mid-life, to change careers and become a registered dietitian. At 38 years old I left a well paying job in advertising and was accepted into the dietetics program at one of the top agriculture schools in the country, Iowa State.
I anticipated a good dose of all things agriculture to be part of the curriculum and, as it turned out, it was. The fact is many of my professors were and are doing the research related to all things agricultural. I had a highly respected food science professor who worked on selective pork breeding genetics, making pork leaner and less fatty. One of my favorite nutrition professors led a multi-university study on the health benefits of soy. And, as it turns out, my genetics professor was exploring the promise of biotech, also known as Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs).
I remember walking past the bronze plaque on the wall of the Human Nutrition Bld. offices with the names of the corporations funding current research studies. There was Kraft, Pillsbury, Iowa Beef, Iowa Pork, the Soy Council and others.
Three years and a 6-month internship later, my dream came true. I was going to make a difference in the lives of my patients and clients as a private practice RD. Ten years later, I could not imagine doing anything else.
Continuing education is a must for licensed registered dietitians and I was excited to attend my first Iowa Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (formerly ADA) meeting in 2003.
The Midwest Dairy Association sponsored our main speaker, Dr. Michael Zemel PhD, who presented his research on how calcium made it easier to lose weight. He said it had to be ‘dairy calcium’, not from supplements; otherwise the results would not be the same. When an RD questioned him about why he would intentionally give three daily servings of dairy to his African American subjects, let’s just say that Dr. Zemel was not happy with the question. Recently, a new meta-analysis study by Harvard, sponsored by the NIH, has more or less nullified Dr. Zemel’s findings.
At this same meeting, the Iowa Beef Council sponsored a female grilling expert, who used different spices and salt flavoring for steaks and hamburgers. The Iowa Pork producer’s Association handed out cookbook brochures. And, it may have been the Egg Council that helped sponsor breakfast. After the first day I knew I would not be getting the kind of continuing education from my state meeting that I was hoping for. It was after all Iowa, with many of the same sponsors funding my university’s research, what did I expect?
I attended my first Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) the following year. I was amazed at the number of excellent speakers, on topics I wanted to learn about. The Expo was huge but I do not recall Coca-Cola or even PepsiCo having much of a presence. What I do recall after ‘04 was an increasing amount of food industry sponsored event invitations coming to me via e-mail and direct mail. Most of these events also offered additional CEU. Navigating around those events was simple- I just did not RSVP.
This last year however, sponsor involvement in educational sessions by the very corporations responsible for creating the worst foods and beverages available on the planet, seemed harder to avoid. These multi-national corporations were actually teaching the sessions to those of us responsible for educating the public.
Here are a few examples:
• Understanding Dietary Fructose- Intakes, research and implications (presented by Coca-Cola)
• Added Sugars and Sweeteners- a panel discussion (presented by the Corn Refiners Association)
• High Fructose Corn Syrup: Myths vs. Science (presented by the Corn Refiners Association)
• Beyond Belly Aches: Identifying and Differentiating Food Allergies and Intolerances (presented by the National Dairy Council, missing disclosure on program)
• Social Nutrition Solutions: Inspiring lifestyle changes through peer-to-peer motivation (presented by PepsiCo)
• Fructose, Sucrose, and HFCS: Danger or Distractions? (presented by the Corn Refiners Association)
• In the Kitchen and Outside the Box: Cooking Lactose-free (presented by the National Dairy Council)
There are more examples from Kellogg’s, McDonald’s and General Mills but I think you get the picture.
I was looking forward to attending a session titled Beyond Belly Aches I specialize in food allergies and intolerances in my practice. It looked like it might be an unsponsored session, no mention of a sponsor in the schedule. Once again, the presenters were suggesting individuals who were Hispanic and African American ingest the same problem food causing the digestive issue, nothing new here. Both speakers it turns out had ties to the dairy industry. Remember — this was not mentioned on the schedule. One thought they were walking into a lecture that was truly about the science of allergies, not advertising for the dairy industry. It was no more than 10 minutes into the presentation that many RDs began to get up and walk out.
These kinds of industry-biased educational sessions are not helping us professionally or our profession. These corporations are partnering with the Academy for one and one reason only– to save their bottom line. They know the public is awakening to years of deceptive marketing and health claims. The public will (in time) hold them accountable for the obesity epidemic and the ill-health consequences from a diet based on the ‘nutrition empty foods’ they provide. So if, the (junk food & beverage) food industry can convince a group of health care practitioners to health-wash their products, maybe, just maybe they can stop their slumping sales and look like they are trying to address the issue at the same time.
I however, find the increasing infiltration and encroachment into our professional organization a disgrace. The Academy can and must do better to avoid such conflict-of-interest. We deserve better for the money we spend to attend FNCE as well as supporting our professional organization through the membership dues we pay yearly. Here is the real problem: once the public trust is lost due to such conflict-of-interest, it will take years to get back, if ever.”