On a few occasions, we have mentioned that other health organizations are able to operate without the type of Big Food partnerships held by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Today, we’re sharing an interview we conducted over several emails with Michael Stroka, Executive Director of the American College of Nutrition (ACN).
We were especially interested in highlighting the ACN because, up until recently, they also took funding from Big Food. In 2006, ConAgra and Unilever were sponsors, while Campbell’s Soup Company and Coca-Cola were listed as a “friends”. They also had ties to the Dairy Council (NOTE: DFPI is not an anti-dairy group; however, The National Dairy Council relentlessly pushes chocolate milk and provides irresponsible “tips”, such as suggesting that lactose intolerant people “drink milk in small sips”).
That all came to an end on September 28, 2011, when ACN adopted a “no corporate funding” policy. Our Q&A with Michael Stroka follows:
1. How did you initially get involved with ACN, and what made you want to take on a leadership role within it?
My health and life were transformed through nutrition. My personal mission is to bring the power of nutrition to improve human health. I joined ACN because it is one of the most highly esteemed nutrition societies in the world. Helping advance the College is a privilege and thrill and a natural outgrowth of my personal mission.
2. What is ACN’s overarching mission, and how do they hope to accomplish it?
Our overarching mission is to advance nutrition science to prevent and treat disease. We accomplish this by stimulating nutrition research and publication, elevating nutrition knowledge among researchers and clinicians, and providing practical guidance on clinical nutrition. Our policy of accepting no funding from for-profit corporations enables us to be an uncompromising source for nutrition science.
3. In terms of membership, what variety of credential health professionals are members of ACN? What percentage of your members are RDs?
The ACN is a diverse group of collegial professionals who share a passion for clinical and research aspects of nutrition science. As such, we are comprised of nutrition professionals who have demonstrated expertise in the field. Our members include MDs, PhDs, Naturopathic Physicians, Chiropractors, Doctors of Pharmacy, nutritionists, dietitians, and others. Approximately 10-15% of our members are Registered Dietitians.
4. Up until 2011, ACN took sponsorship money from The National Dairy Council and Coca-Cola, to name a few. What led to the elimination of these sponsors, and who were the decision makers in that process?
In 2011, the ACN underwent a change in leadership and re-evaluated the vision and mission for the College. Our mission to advance uncompromised nutrition science was an outgrowth of this process and the College adopted a new policy against taking funding from for-profit corporations to reflect this ethic. The decision was unanimously reached by the Board of Directors.
5. Can you touch on any organizational differences that you noticed once sponsorships from for-profit companies were eliminated?
I believe that this policy has invigorated the whole organization – leadership and members. We have had broad support for this policy from the Members of the College and it has infused us all with energy and enthusiasm to be part of an organization that is so squarely focused on the science.
6. Those who support these sorts of sponsorships claim that without them, dues would be outrageously high and the organization would see its outreach opportunities limited. What is your response?
A: Our dues remain very reasonable at $150 per year. It is true that without corporate sponsorships the organization forgoes a major potential revenue stream. The question a professional society must ask is what is its purpose? The ACN’s purpose is to advance nutrition science to prevent and treat disease. We believe the route to achieving that mission is not being the biggest, but being the best and most uncompromising source for nutrition science. We believe that proposition will prove extremely attractive to clinicians and researchers who are serious about sophisticated nutrition science and seek to operate at the highest level.
7. ACN currently takes sponsorships from non-profits and individuals. Is there a system in place that looks into any possible connections these may have to the food industry (for example: IFIC is a front group for the likes of PepsiCo, Nestlé, and Monsanto)? If there isn’t one, will guidelines eventually be developed?
We take this very seriously. The College would not accept money from any entity trying to subvert our funding policy by cloaking themselves in another form, such as a non-profit front group for interests misaligned with nutrition science for human health.
8. What does ethical sponsorship that values integrity look like to you? What are the pitfalls in a nutrition organization taking money from PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, General Mills, and McDonald’s?
The ACN is a charitable non-profit (501(c)3) organization that serves the public good. This is consistent with adhering to the highest level of funding integrity. The public is suspicious and cynical about what corporations are “behind” nutrition guidelines and advice. Having an ethical funding policy builds trust and confidence in our organization.
There has been a great deal written about biases that are introduced into organizations that accept funding from sources misaligned with their mission. It can affect the policies and positions of an organization, and can have a corrosive effect on the public’s perception of that organization’s positions and those of its members.
Many thanks to Michael Stroka for his time.