For many years, a number Registered Dietitians have felt frustrated with – and misrepresented by – the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ (AND) partnerships with Big Food mammoths like Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Hershey’s. Despite expressing this disappointment to their professional organization, these concerns did not appear to be taken seriously, nor have there appeared to be any attempts from AND to reevaluate who it obtained funding from. While some dietitians within the organization are tackling this issue, RDs still felt a need for a vocal coalition to publicly speak out on this issue. Dietitians for Professional Integrity was formed with the hopes of becoming one more part of the solution towards more appropriate corporate partnerships from the country’s leading nutrition organization.
Since the release of public health lawyer Michele Simon’s report on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ corporate partnerships last month, the Registered Dietitian community has had much to talk about. A recent Twitter chat about this topic had such high turnout that “#RDChat” made it to Twitter’s Trending Topics, demonstrating that dialogue on this issue has been long overdue.
And, now, a new development: a coalition known as Dietitians for Professional Integrity launched its Facebook page last Wednesday, obtaining 485 “likes” in its first 12 hours. The group – co-founded by myself and 15 dietitian colleagues – is made up of Registered Dietitians, Dietetic Technicians, and dietetic students (as well as their supporters) and advocates for greater financial transparency as well as ethical, socially responsible, and relevant corporate sponsorships within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND).
Apart from serving as a central hub for like-minded individuals to voice their displeasure with AND’s current corporate sponsorship model, a “statement of concern” from a dietetics professional or student is shared on the page every weekday. The hope is that these statements will further stimulate discussion, better connect colleagues, and demonstrate that current AND President Ethan Bergman was misguided and ill-informed when he recently stated that every AND member supports the Academy’s current food industry partnerships.
Many of the dietetic professionals who joined the group expressed how important it is to have forum where they can express the frustrations they have felt for so long (frustrations that were expressed to the Academy and often did not receive a response) and not just be heard, but also work towards better sponsorships that do not discredit the credential they worked for.
In response to criticism that speaking out against their professional organization is disloyal, the Dietitians for Professional Integrity group states the following in their Frequently Asked Questions document:
“We do not believe it is disloyal to demand that our professional organization behave in a more responsible fashion. We value our credential and want it to be represented in an honorable way.
We believe change can only come from speaking out and voicing concerns. All social movements that led to positive change started with a group of people who expressed their dissatisfaction with the status quo and mobilized others. Remaining silent under the guise of loyalty does not address issues, help foster dialogue, or provide room for problem-solving.
As a point of reference: the American Medical Association did not publicly cut ties with Big Tobacco until 1978, despite decades of research showing the harmful effects of smoking. Some doctors began raising concerns about their professional organization’s financial ties to tobacco companies as early as 1964. It was precisely this leadership and advocacy, combined with scientific evidence and public pressure, that brought about change. Imagine if no doctors ever dared to challenge their own professional organization and instead simply felt comforted by their professional organization’s stance.”
The group wants the Academy “to develop clear guidelines to differentiate between sponsorships associated with foods and products that have no place in a healthy diet (such as soda, potato chips, and candy) and sponsorships that offer some value to a significant portion of their membership and also engage in ethical environmental and labor practices.”
It also suggest five specific recommendations:
1. Host a point-counterpoint panel/moderated debate on this topic at this year’s Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics conference (to be held in Houston in October);
2. Greater transparency and full disclosure of finances;
3. Address this issue to its constituents;
4. Reject corporate-sponsored education (with certain exceptions – such as a company that makes parenteral nutrition formula educating dietitians on the management of specific clinical nutrition pathologies);
5. Adopt more ethical corporate sponsorship guidelines that truly reflect AND’s mission (using the Hunger & Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Group’s ethical sponsorship guidelines as a model).
While the diverse dietitians in this group work in a wide range of clinical, community, research, and private practice settings, they are united by their desire to no longer have their credential tarnished and co-opted by ties to the very companies that have continually fought tooth and nail against public health and sound nutrition. The time has come for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to do right by its members and put an end to insidious and troublesome partnerships with the food industry’s most notorious players.
A version of this piece was originally published on Weighty Matters