Friday, February 4, 2011

Editorial: Beware Jumping into Bed with Food Industry

A pointed editorial in the Canadian medical journal CMAJ:

--warns medical organizations and patient advocacy groups to watch out for financial entanglements with the food industry (and provides a detailed appendix of recent entanglements of note).

One issue I've been following closely (most recently, is the money paid to the American Academy of Family Physicians by Coca-Cola to develop patient education materials for the AAFP website. The editorial by Yoni Freedhoff and Paul C. Hebert fills in two points that I was previously unaware of. First, they give the actual amount of the "grant," $600,000, which initially AAFP was pretty mealy-mouthed about. Second, they add the detail that the CEO of Coca-Cola attempted to leverage this tie with AAFP when lobbying against a tax on sugary sodas, indicating why corporations think that these financial ties are worth their money. In a pro-con debate over the soda tax in the Atlantic Journal-Constitution, Sandy Douglas, president of Coca-Cola North America, argued against the tax by saying, "At Coca-Cola, we’re playing our part in helping develop and support workable solutions. Let’s stop pointing fingers and start working together productively." As evidence of "working together," Douglas said: "We’re for education, through support for organizations such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, which is providing consumers science-based information about sweeteners" (see full article at

The most egregious single example Freedhoff and Hebert provide is the Save the Children organization, which started out staunchly in support of the soda tax, and then suddenly changed its mind. It claims that the fact that it recently got big grants from both Coke and Pepsi had nothing to do with its change of heart.

Freedhoff and Hebert start by claiming that the food industry has discovered that its highest and surest profits come from marketing high-calorie, maximally processed foods, that is, foods of the least nutritional value. (Is there another Inverse Benefit Law waiting to be described here?) They also claim that the best research now available targets increased caloric intake rather than lack of exercise as the main driver of today's global obesity "epidemic," yet by buying the loyalties of medical groups and patient organizations, the food industry manages to disseminate the obfuscating message that we'd be able to eat all the junk food we wanted if we'd just get off our duffs. That message coming straight from the food industry would be viewed with the skepticism it deserves; coming from supposedly credible health-related organizations, it works.

Freedhoff and Hebert conclude: "Corporations are not the problem. By definition, corporate spending must serve to increase shareholder value... Health organizations, even when desperate for money or resources, should avoid co-branding with the food industry. At the very least, partnerships should comprise unconditional arm's-length grants with clauses limiting how corporations use health organizations brands.... When they partner, health organizations become inadvertent pitchmen for the food industry."


Marilyn Mann said...

I recommend Dr. Freedhoff's blog, Weighty Matters.

Government Grants said...

Freedhoff and Hebert are claiming in very true manner. Such that more of the profits in every industry come from the marketing high-calorie, maximally processed foods.

Anonymous said...

"Corporations are not the problem. By definition, corporate spending must serve to increase shareholder value..."
I believe corporations are the problem, especially now that the Supreme Court has decided they should have the same rights as people, we're on a slippery slope.