Earlier this month, the California Dietetic Association hosted its annual conference (the same conference which had McDonald’s as a gold sponsor and served a McDonald’s lunch to dietitians in attendance).
DFPI core member David Wiss attended one day of the conference. His account follows:
“On Saturday April 5, 2014 I attended the California Dietetic Association (CDA) Annual Conference in Pomona, CA. Estimates on the CDA website suggest that roughly 700 dietetic professionals attend the event.
My first impression was that the event was much smaller than the previous year in Santa Clara. I picked up my complimentary tote bag with a single Dairy King logo on it, noticing that it was much less offensive than other bags that I have received in the past. This was a stark contrast to the Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo (FNCE) tote bags that were covered with multiple logos from Big Food sponsors. I was surprised to discover that the expo had closed down on Friday and that exhibitors had left.
The first session I attended was sponsored by the California Beef Council and was entitled: “Preserving Muscle Mass During Weight Loss” which was the most attended session at that time. The speaker was not a dietitian but rather an exercise physiologist, who presented evidence that individuals who lose weight will lose fat-free mass in addition to fat. He briefly reviewed the effectiveness of different types of exercise in the preservation of muscle mass. Recommendations included an increase in dietary protein to preserve fat-free mass during weight loss. Conference tables were covered with folders from the Beef Council, but the actual presenter did not mention beef or the Beef Council in his presentation. I sensed that dietitians are becoming more aware of the influence of corporate sponsors on continuing education sessions, which was refreshing in light of all of the recent controversy surrounding corporate sponsorship.
The second presentation I attended was noteworthy because it seemed free of corporate influence: no sponsor was listed on the program. The title of the talk was “Plant Powered Eating for Optimal Health” and provided support for a plant-based diet. However, within five minutes into the presentation, an event volunteer began distributing flyers from the USA Rice Federation to all attendees. Just when I thought I had found a presentation free of conflict, the situation quickly changed. At the end of the presentation, the speaker offered several rice-based recipes and thanked the USA Rice Federation for sponsoring the talk. It was not clear why this sponsorship was not listed on the program.
Safest Choice Pasteurized Eggs and the California Avocado Commission sponsored lunch. The closing Keynote Address sponsored by McDonald’s: “Food: Rules, Duels or Fuel?” was presented by a dietitian with a Masters in Public Health who is also a Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics working with professional and collegiate teams. McDonald’s sponsored lunch on the previous day and there appeared to be a strategic separation between their serving lunch and their sponsored presentation.
The presentation included an attack on people who had “elitist ideals” about food. The dietitian identified the basic needs of collegiate athletes who allegedly are on a limited budget, and discussed common struggles of college athletes, such as inadequate sodium intake due to their high losses in sweat. She emphasized the need to fuel athletes within a limited budget. She also challenged many of the current food trends around restricting selected foods from athletes’ diets (gluten, dairy etc.). This framing is standard operating procedure for the food industry, where any position that does not support processed foods is branded as “elitist”.
The irony, of course, is that most advocates who are accused of being elitist are the same people advocating for healthier food environments in low-income communities, more equal access to healthful foods, and a higher minimum wage. How does advocating for a more fair food system equal elitism?
Additionally, there are many whole, unprocessed foods that fit within a limited budget (i.e.: beans, legumes, oats, frozen fruits and vegetables, etc.). The food industry prefers to obscure that message because the last thing they want is people eating more homemade meals.
Her message was one of balance and moderation (not vilifying any foods) consistent with the “Total Diet Approach” endorsed by the Academy. The presentation made no mention of McDonald’s, which may have been due to the heightened sensitivity around industry-sponsored educational sessions. Regardless, the talk was sponsored by McDonald’s and therefore communicated information meant to paint processed foods as innocuous.
All attendees at the Keynote Address were given a questionnaire requesting personal information (title, area of work), feedback about the presentation, and a very important question at the bottom: “McDonald’s is an appropriate sponsor of the CDA Annual Conference” with a checkbox for yes or no and place to explain. I filled one out and expressed my dissatisfaction with McDonald’s as a sponsor, while observing that many people did not take the time to fill out the questionnaire. I spoke to a CDA administrator and requested a copy of the results from the survey. We have to keep in mind, though, that most RDs who do not support these sorts of partnerships tend to boycott these sorts of events, so it is likely that the results of this survey will not show a backlash against these types of partnerships.
It is clear that we have a long way to go before we can have dietetic conferences that are free of influence from Big Food. At the very least, the concerns brought up by many dietitians over the past year are starting to be heard, with some local dietetic associations voting to no longer accept funds from the likes of Coca-Cola and other Big Food players, and the California Dietetic Association surveying attendees about McDonald’s presence at their conference. Let’s continue to speak up and stand up for the integrity of our profession.”