We want to keep you in the loop regarding our dialogue with Academy leadership. Below is an abridged version of our last email to current President Glenna McCollum, where we detail some of our concerns:
“Dear Dr. McCollum,
You raised many important topics in your last email, which we touch on below:
A) Current Academy guidelines that aid decision-making about sponsorship:
We are familiar with the guidelines that appear on the Academy website, but were wondering about more specific ones. We know, for instance, that the HEN DPG provided Academy leadership with specific guidelines, and we (DFPI) are almost done drafting a sponsorship rubric that we believe should be utilized to vet possible sponsors (the rubric scores companies on a variety of criteria; we will share it publicly soon).
Our concern with the current Academy guidelines is that they are rather subjective and are therefore open to wide interpretation.
A few of our comments:
- “Adherence and commitment to the Academy’s mission, vision, positions and policies”:
The Academy’s vision is: “optimizing health through food and nutrition”. Our question: how does the Coca-Cola Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness (which we think we can agree is essentially utilized to defend sugar-sweetened beverages) align with that vision? Similarly, how does a company like Kellogg’s – which mainly produces highly processed products, like Pop-Tarts, Froot Loops, and sugar-laden breakfast shakes – adhere to that vision? This is another good time for us to emphasize that we don’t fault the food industry for prioritizing profits above all else; however, we also don’t think they should also reap the benefits of partnering up with organizations that should prioritize health above all else.
- “Scientific Accuracy”:
We understand that this guideline only applies to materials, presentations, and information shared with members (as opposed to general information sponsors share with the general public). With that in mind, though, last year’s FNCE bag contained a handout by the National Dairy Council which argued that conventional dairy is sustainable. This is in complete disagreement with numerous studies on sustainability, which have continuously proven that organic dairy is significantly more sustainable than conventional dairy.
This report from the Union of Concerned Scientists explains that “while cattle on pasture rarely get sick, those confined to feedlots and fed grain are prone to disease and most feedlot operators routinely feed antibiotics to prevent illness and to accelerate growth. This, in turn, increases the risk of antibiotic resistance in humans. In addition, air and water pollution stemming from dust and mountains of feedlot manure, and the many fertilizers and pesticides used in grain production, exact a heavy toll on the environment and the health of farmers, farm workers, and nearby residents.”
We don’t quite understand how a partnership with a company is not an example of an endorsement. Even if that is not the Academy’s intent, the general public perceives partnerships as endorsements, especially when these companies’ logos appear in our journal and at our conference.
We also want to point out that many other organizations – such as the prestigious and well-respected American Public Health Association – do not accept funding from companies like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Kellogg’s. It is already being done, successfully.
B) Survey Results:
We can see how, at face value, the statistic that two percent of respondents dropped their membership or did not join the Academy because of disagreeing with Academy policies may make it seem like this is a topic that is neither important nor pressing.
That said, several of us DFPI co-founders have been talking about this issue at the local level, to RD audiences that can be described as receptive and interested . One thing we have all found is that, by and large, most RDs who attended these talks were not entirely familiar with the reasons why there are concerns about the current sponsorship model. It was only after learning about how these companies market deceptively, continually battle public health policies, and misinterpret science (and attack those who raise concerns about their products) that many people start to see why having a nutrition organization partner with these companies raises a red flag.
We also want to point out that many people – including most DFPI co-founders – are still Academy members despite their disagreement with the Academy’s corporate partners, largely because they want to participate in (and/or support) various DPGs. And, of course, several students and interns have mentioned to us that they don’t have a choice as far as not joining the Academy since it is required for them.
While we understand that, by and large, an organization wants to create policies that its members agree with, there also have to be certain issues where leadership has to blaze a progressive trail. There are many examples in history of policies and laws that were enacted by thought leaders that, while perhaps not popular with the general public, were necessary for the sake of progress.
It’s gotten to the point where even moderate and slightly conservative organizations like the World Health Organization have expressed concern about partnerships with the food industry (see Page 3 of this document, where Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the WHO, addresses concerns about Big Food and Big Soda). In the past year alone, several reputable journals have published studies on how industry funding affects research studies and public policy (here is one example).
C) Stigmatizing Critical Thinking:
Our thoughts about the Academy stigmatizing critical thinking was commentary on the organization in general; there are certainly individual members within leadership who have taken the time to listen to and speak with us, and who have been respectful to our efforts (in those instances, we have publicly recognized that).
Here are some examples that come to mind of in regards to stigmatizing and silencing:
1) When the topic of DFPI (or any comment about Academy sponsorship that is not in agreement with the Academy’s currently model) has been brought up on a DPG listserv, posters have been reminded about the listserv guidelines which do not allow posts that paint the Academy in a “negative” light. This frustrates us for two reasons. First, it comes across as silencing. Second, it characterizes any disagreement (even civil and well-reasoned thoughts from RDs who bring up the topic to stimulate discussion) as “negative.” Even on the recent survey, a comment on sponsorship that did not agree with the Academy’s current stance had to be labeled as “negative”. Why not “constructive”? It may seem like splitting hairs, but the way that this discussion has been framed thus far has painted those who agree with the Academy as “positive” and those who don’t as “negative,” which diminishes the validity of these concerns.
2) At last year’s point-counterpoint session on sponsorship at FNCE (which, we have to say, we were extremely disappointed by since it was not a point-counterpoint on sponsorship), both speakers dismissed concerns about the current corporate sponsors, and neither validated concerns about the current sponsorship model. On more than one ocassion, the moderator consistently interrupted audience members whose questions to the speakers raised concerns about the current sponsors (in one ocassion, a question that criticized the Academy sponsors received a comment of “bias from the speaker” by the moderator). This was another example of dismissive treatment of the issue that was passively sanctioned by the Academy.
3) After DFPI released its report on FNCE, this is what Academy media relations manager Ryan O’Malley said to Food Navigator: “Andy has found a handful of things he dislikes. More than 6,000 people attended FNCE this year, so it’s to be expected that not all of them agree with every part of the four-day event.”
While Andy is the group’s strategic director, 14 dietitians co-founded DFPI (and at least several hundred support it). My name was not anywhere on the report, so it was surprising to us that the Academy’s response was to dismiss a group’s report as one person’s opinion. It was incongruent with what you and Dr. Bergman’s said to us at FNCE about the importance of engaging in dialogue. The Academy’s public response to that report (via Mr. O’Malley) was not one of civil disagreement with an interest in re-evaluation and conversation; it was one of dismissiveness.
D) Modifying sponsorships and revenue:
To further expand on why we think the current sponsorship guidelines are not ethical and responsible: first let us once again clarify that we are not saying the people in favor of these guidelines are unethical or irresponsible. DFPI’s advocacy efforts are in no way personal (many of us have friendships with colleagues who see this issue differently).
Why do we say these sponsorships are unethical? Because they tie a nutrition organization with companies that have well-documented histories of systematically fighting public health policy, co-opting science, and who – and we don’t fault them for this – have a goal of selling as much of their product as possible. In our eyes, a nutrition organization partnering up with Coca-Cola is no different from what occurred a few decades back with the American Medical Association and tobacco companies.
Why do we say they are irresponsible? Because these sponsorships allow these companies to educate dietitians, and this information then trickles down to the American public.
We truly don’t see tangible examples of how these partnerships help RDs. Furthermore, is enhanced visibility worth it if it comes at the hands of the very companies that global public health and nutrition experts are calling out?
As we continue these conversations, is it accurate for us to think that the Academy (as a whole) is interested in weighing alternatives to the current sponsorship model, or is the Academy more interested in maintaining the status quo?
Thank you for your time.”