Yesterday we shared public health advocate Nancy Huehnergarth’s letter to the presidents of both the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics to show that while our specific efforts revolve around our professional organization — the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics — the problem of corporate partnerships is rampant and systemic.
In this Politico piece, Byron Tau and Helena Bottemiller Evich detail how First Lady Michelle Obama’s policy initiatives are closely tied to various corporations:
“Big lobbying forces and major industry groups like the American Beverage Association, the International Bottled Water Association, the Food Marketing Institute, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, the National Restaurant Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and many others have all worked closely with the East Wing on those initiatives, both of which heavily focus on private sector contributions.
Visitor records show produce association president Bryan Silbermann visited the White House on several occasions to meet with the first lady, Let’s Move! executive director Sam Kass, former White House public engagement director Jon Carson and other top staffers.”
While many of these efforts appear laudable on paper and are all-too-commonly described as examples of “baby steps”, many advocates (ourselves included) have a different viewpoint.
The Politico piece continues:
“There is a disconnect between the rhetoric candidate Obama spouted and what Michelle Obama is doing,” said Michele Simon, a food policy consultant and author of “Appetite for Profit.” “What she’s doing is taking the place of policy. That’s problematic because it’s not a transparent, democratic process. It’s all closed-door meetings.”
It’s a criticism echoed by nonpartisan government watchdogs who argue that the good intentions of both policy efforts are nevertheless a magnet for corporate industry groups seeking visibility, access or free publicity.
“This is a classic case of the game of influence peddling by lobbying associations,” said Craig Holman, who is a lobbyist with the watchdog group Public Citizen. “However noble the original intent of the first lady’s Joining Forces and Let’s Move! initiatives, lobbyists and corporations with business pending before the federal government invest in such charitable causes as a means to buy access and favor from the White House.”
This “sitting at the table with industry” rhetoric is one the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics also relies on in its defense of its partnerships. However, too often what is perceived as “sitting at the table” is really industry trying to get into the good graces of health organizations to minimize damage and criticism to its brands.
Next time industry champions itself as a willing player in any sort of public health initiative, remember the Interagency Working Group’s failed attempt at setting voluntary guidelines on marketing to children.