Today’s big food and agriculture companies work hard to protect their images. Companies like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Monsanto spend a lot of time and money diverting attention away from negative science related to their products and associating themselves with groups that promote healthy food and families.
For a long time, those tactics appeared to be working; but several of this year’s developments suggest that they might not work for much longer. In fact, you might say that 2015 was the year transparency re-entered the picture. Here’s a timeline of what happened.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) announced a partnership between its Kids Eat Right Foundation and Kraft Foods. In exchange for a grant, the Kids Eat Right Foundation logo would appear on packages of Kraft Singles. Academy leadership announced this bombastically, with a video announcement from then-president Sonja L. Connor and the simultaneous launch of a new website called Cheesy Facts. The Daily Show quipped that AND—long-known for its cozy relationships with food and beverage giants—was “as much an Academy as [Kraft Singles] is cheese.”
The partnership resulted in unprecedented pushback from its own members. Some dietitians have been vocal with their concerns about the organization’s corporate ties for many years, but the collaboration resulted in a “repeal the seal” petition that received over 10,000 signatures in the first five days and a slew of negative comments on social media. The collaboration disintegrated three weeks later.
Also in March, New York University professor and author Marion Nestle began an ongoing series on her blog Food Politics that published the results of industry-funded studies. As of December 15, the score is 90 to 9, with 90 industry—funded studies favoring the sponsor, and nine not favoring the sponsor. This inspired a Journal of the American Medical Association Internal Medicine op-ed [PDF] from Nestle titled, “Corporate Funding of Food and Nutrition Research: Science of Marketing?” In it she wrote:
So much research is sponsored by industry that health professionals and the public may lose confidence in basic dietary advice. Science is not the issue here. Marketing is the issue. Should nutrition researchers and professional societies accept funding from food companies? Not without careful thinking. It’s time that food and nutrition researchers and societies recognize the influence of food-industry sponsorship, take steps to control its effects, and ensure that sponsored studies promote public health, not the marketing of food products.
A few months later, all eyes were on a New York Times story about the Coca-Cola funded Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). Launched in 2014, the network was a food industry front group that “promoted the idea that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise.” Times health reporter Anahad O’Connor delved into the group’s history following a tip from Canadian obesity doctor Yoni Freedhoff and made two important discoveries: “Coke had donated $1.5 million to start the organization. [And,] since 2008, the company provided close to $4 million in funding for various projects to two of the organization’s founding members.”
The news of GEBN’s Coca-Cola ties set off a domino effect of unprecedented public relations nightmares for the soda company. Initially, Coca-Cola used the controversy to its benefit. CEO Muhtar Kent promised a new era of increased transparency and the company published an extensive list of organizations and scientific experts and researchers it had helped fund (although some professionals declined to have their names listed).
A month later, Eric Lipton’s story on the biotech and organic industries funding the work of academic scientists to help influence policy made the front page of The New York Times. Lipton focused on two academics: Dr. Kevin Folta, Professor and Chairman at the University of Florida’s Horticultural Sciences Department, who received $25,000 from Monsanto to help fund a biotech education program, and Chuck Benbrook, a former research scientist at Washington State University, who received research funding from companies like Organic Valley and Whole Foods. The piece pointed to instances where both researchers minimized or failed to mention their respective relationships to industry, and highlighted their strategic email communications with industry.
Two months later, the University of Colorado, wanting to wash its hands of the affiliation with Coca-Cola, returned a $1 million grant to the soda giant (the money was then re-gifted to the Boys and Girls Club of America). During this whole time, numerous editorial boards—including The New York Times, The Denver Post, and USA Today—repudiated what they called “Coke science.”
By this point, GEBN was on its last leg. The final—and perhaps most brutal—blow came on November 24. Emails obtained by Candice Choi of the Associated Press revealed that, despite GEBN researchers’ insistence that Coca-Cola in no way influenced or informed any of the group’s activities, Coca-Cola executives had in fact micromanaged every step of the process. Choi revealed that the company had even dictated the colors that GEBN used for the network’s logo (blue was not allowed, as it was too reminiscent of rival PepsiCo). Almost immediately, the company’s Chief Scientific Officer Rhona Applebaum (who once tweeted that cutting out sugar could result in death) resigned. Days later, GEBN disbanded.
The Network’s implosion suggested that Coca-Cola may no longer be the invincible “too big to fail” force it once appeared to be. Even before the GEBN debacle, a Business Insider article from earlier in the year declared that “Coke is on the way out. Not with a bang, but a long, slow whimper,” citing a tepid financial outlook given the company’s soft-drink laden portfolio. That may help explain the company’s damage control efforts, including president of Coca-Cola North America Sandy Douglas apologizing for leaked emails where executives referred to the “shrill rhetoric” of “public health extremists.”
More importantly, the food industry might just be in the early stages of a paradigm shift. For many nutrition groups, sponsorship by the food industry has often been considered a necessary evil, particularly at a time where federal nutrition funding is so paltry.
However, this year’s incidents suggest that many in the public health and nutrition sector want substantial change, starting with minimizing corporate influence on research. This has been an important year for transparency. Let’s keep the momentum going.