Yesterday, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics held a”point-counterpoint” on food industry sponsorships at its annual conference.
Although we will share a full report on the entire conference (the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo, also known as FNCE) in a few weeks, we at least wanted to fill you in on the point-counterpoint.
Here is Dietitians for Professional Integrity co-founder and strategic director Andy Bellatti’s account:
“To say this point-counterpoint session was fatally mishandled would be an understatement. Although it was titled “Public-Private Collaborations” (and, per my emails with some Academy FNCE committee members, was supposed to specifically touch on partnerships with the food industry), that was barely discussed.
The first speaker (Dr. Paul Rozin, psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania) spent the majority of his time talking about the complexity of scientific research, the presence of bias in science, and how to analyze research studies. Toward the end of his time at the podium, he mentioned that what needs to be looked at critically at is research coming out of universities (some of which is sponsored by the food industry) and how findings are reported in ways that may not be representative of what the actual findings are. However, there was no discussion of the implications surrounding collaborations between health organizations and the food industry.
One very frustrating aspect of this session was that a false dichotomy was set up: either you “hate” the food industry or you embrace it. There was no recognition of nuances, of the many different sorts of companies and players within the food industry. Big Food is at one end of the spectrum, but there are plenty of other types of companies. That is precisely why Dietitians For Professional Integrity advocates for more responsible, ethical, and relevant sponsorships within the Academy. We have never said all sponsorship is inherently evil, yet it seemed that the underlying message throughout this whole session was: “You can’t just reject the entire food industry as evil” (essentially, a straw man argument).
Despite this being billed as a moderated point-counterpoint, both speakers did not debate each other. In fact, it very much felt like listening to two separate presentations. Whereas Dr. Rozin focused on how to examine research, journalist Michael Specter went on various rants.
Specter started his talk by stating that those who advocate for organic agriculture are rich (he let the audience know that he himself is rich and therefore doesn’t have any qualms if produce at his home goes bad before he is able to eat it), self-involved, and out of touch.
Despite the fact that an abundance of food is thrown out and wasted on a daily basis, he based a large part of his talk on the myth that hunger is simply about not having or growing enough food to feed the world . The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, meanwhile — a true authority on the issue of hunger — has stated that the three main causes of hunger are poverty, conflict, and climate change. According to Specter, solutions for hunger that don’t have to do with GMOs are well-meaning and “cute”, but will never work.
Specter also mentioned that if it weren’t for Big Food and Big Ag, no one in the session would be alive, and that blaming Big Food and Big Ag for problems was akin to blaming the Wright Brothers for the attacks on September 11.
He then went on rants against Greenpeace and raw milk. How any of that related to the topic at hand (public-private collaborations) alluded me and everyone who was seated around me. In fact, most tweets posted during Specter’s talk were along the lines of “What does this have to do with public-private collaborations?”.
Oddly, despite this being billed as a point-counterpoint, after Michael Specter finished his talk, Paul Rozin let the room know that he agreed with mostly everything that Specter had just said (never mind the fact that they both spoke on two completely different topics).
Despite what Diane Moore of the FNCE planning committee had written me in an email earlier this year about this session having time for “extended Q&A” (most sessions have 30 minutes), there were only 15 minutes of Q&A.
When I went to the microphone, I noted that I had a question but wanted to give some background about it first. This was not a problem at another session I attended this year, when I went to the microphone and said: “I am first going to read a paragraph from an article published on NPR’s website in 2009, and I would like to hear [a certain panelist’s] response”). However, at this session, things were apparently different. Roberta Anding’s response to me was simply this: “You may ask one question”.
So, I skipped the background (I had originally planned to explain that DFPI was a group advocating more more appropriate sponsorship — not ‘zero’ sponsorship — and that one issue to consider is whether the companies you are aligning with share your goal or are using you as a way to do damage control for negative press), introduced myself and said the following (this is all paraphrased and from memory, but you will get the gist of the interaction):
“In light of the fact that many of the companies that sponsor the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, my professional organization, have been called to task for unethical practices….”
Roberta Anding interrupted me and once again said “One question”.
I continued: “Yes, I’m getting to it. For practices like deceptive marketing, marketing to children, tapping limited resources from developing nations…”
Roberta Anding once again interrupted me and said “What is your question?”
I continued: “My question is, do you think it is okay for the Academy to partner with companies that engage in these sorts of behaviors?”
The consensus from both Dr. Rozin and Michael Specter was that we need to recognize the good these companies do. When asked about whether these partnerships hurt the RD credential, Dr. Rozin pointed to PepsiCo’s Tropicana and Quaker products as examples of the company offering healthier products (our response to that is that PepsiCo spends most of its advertising budget on its unhealthiest foods, engages in problematic environmental and labor practices, and also to remember that fruit juice is not a health food, and that most Quaker products are laden with sugar — some even with partially hydrogenated oils). This defense of PepsiCo was met with loud applause from several Academy leaders sitting in the first few rows.
Michael Specter also defended the food industry during the Q&A portion by pointing to McDonald’s getting rid of battery cages (despite going on a rant about PETA during his talk, Specter forgot to mention that McDonald’s getting rid of battery cages was largely due to pressure from The Humane Society, not PETA) as evidence that these companies make meaningful changes.
McDonald’s no longer sourcing eggs from hens in battery cages is progress on the animal welfare front, but the fact that they spend over $100 million marketing Happy Meals each year is cause for concern, as are their healthwashed items (i.e.: sugar-laden oatmeal, egg white McMuffins cooked in trans fats). Also, there is a huge difference between recognizing a company making a substantial change and partnering with them or accepting funding from them.
From talking to others after the session, many found it to be underwhelming, off-topic, and offensive (some RDs walked out during Michael Specter’s talk; they later told me they were very turned off by his abrasive and hostile tone).
I was most disappointed that the issue of private and public partnerships was a mere afterthought that only one speaker touched on superficially. This should have been a structured debate on a very specific issue — should a health organization like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics take funding from the likes of Coca-Cola? That is the issue at stake. Had I been in the audience of this point-counterpoint without having been told the title of the session, I would have guessed it was a session on how the general public perceives science. I am still wondering why the Academy tapped these two speakers.
To say this was a wasted opportunity for dialogue would be an understatement. I can’t possibly imagine the Academy thinking this was a satisfactory event on the topic of sponsorship; it was confusing, bizarre, hostile, and in no way addressed the issue that has been on everyone’s mind for months now. This only showed how unwilling the Academy appears to be to have dialogue about food industry sponsorships.
I will submit a proposal for a session for next year’s conference that will focus solely on the topic of partnerships between health organizations and the food industry and that will have a registered dietitian presence on the panel (for all the “RDs are the expert!” rhetoric the Academy always puts out, it seems that for this session they had zero interest in hearing from RDs, the very people whose credential is at stake when these types of partnerships are formed); let’s see if it gets accepted.”