OAKLAND, CALIF. — The credibility of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has been called into question as part of a new report from Eat Drink Politics, a private consulting firm.
The 50-page report, “And now a word from our sponsors: Are America’s nutrition professionals in the pocket of big food?”, details how corporate sponsorship from such companies as Coca-Cola Co., Kraft Foods Group, Nestle S.A., and PepsiCo, Inc. may be “undermining the integrity” of the nutrition professionals responsible for educating Americans about healthy eating. Michele Simon, a public health attorney, wrote the report.
According to the report, several “disturbing findings” stood out in an examination of AND’s 74,000 member trade group. Among them, the fact that in 2011 AND’s annual report listed 38 food industry sponsors, up from 10 sponsors in 2001.
Companies on AND’s list of approved continuing education providers include Coca-Cola, Kraft Foods, Nestle and PepsiCo. Specific to continuing education, the report noted Coca-Cola’s sponsored courses include one that suggests sugar is not harmful to children; aspartame is completely safe, including for children over one year; and the Institute of Medicine is too restrictive in its school nutrition standards.
The report pointed out approximately 23% of AND’s annual meeting speakers had industry ties, although most of the conflicts of interest were not disclosed in the program session description. The Corn Refiners Association, which lobbies for high-fructose corn syrup, sponsored three “expo impact” sessions at the AND 2012 annual meeting, according to the report.
Citing an independent survey, the report noted 80% of registered dietitians said sponsorship implies AND endorsement of that company and its products. A majority of the dietitians surveyed also thought AND should verify that a sponsor’s corporate mission is consistent with that of the Academy prior to accepting them.
The report identified five recommendations for AND to consider:
• Greater transparency: “AND should make more details available to the public (or at least to members) regarding corporate sponsorships — far beyond what it currently provides in its annual reports.”
• Request input from membership: “Trade group policies should reflect the desires of its members. Many R.D.s object to corporate sponsorship but don’t know how to make their voices heard.”
• Meaningful sponsorship guidelines: “AND should implement much stronger and more meaningful sponsorship guidelines, possibly looking to the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group’s stricter guidelines as a model.”
• Reject corporate-sponsored education: “AND should reject outright corporate-sponsored continuing education, as well as corporate-sponsored education sessions at its annual meeting. AND should also consider placing more distance between its credentialing arm and the main organization.”
• Increased leadership on nutrition policy: “In recent years, AND’s leadership has taken important steps to improve its policy agenda and create a positive presence in Washington. However, while the staff in the D.C. office is lobbying on behalf of AND’s membership, ‘education sessions’ are being taught to R.D.s by Coke and Hershey’s. This disconnect will continue to undermine AND’s credibility on critical policy issues until the conflicts are resolved.”
Responding to the report, Ryan O’Malley, media relations manager for AND, said the facts in the report were obtained mostly from publicly accessible pages on AND’s web site.
“This illustrates the academy’s commitment to transparency in candor in all of our actions, including corporate sponsorship,” Mr. O’Malley said. “Of the 67 references, at least 24 are information from the academy and its foundation’s web sites; the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s web site and research articles published by academy members.”
Mr. O’Malley noted each year AND uses Performance Research, a research company, to examine a random selection of members in a statistically sound survey of the academy’s membership as a whole.
“The results from these representative surveys have shown an increased awareness and continued support of the sponsorship program among academy members,” he said. “In its relations with corporate organizations, the academy is mindful of the need to avoid a perception of conflict of interest and to act at all times in ways that will only enhance the credibility and professional recognition of the academy and its members. The continuing value of the academy’s name depends on its reputation for integrity, which has been earned by generations of academy members over the course of many decades.“The academy’s procedures and formal agreements with external organizations are designed to prevent any undue corporate influence particularly where there is a possibility that corporate self-interest might tend to conflict with sound science or academy positions, policies and philosophies.”