Thursday, 24 January 2013

Dietitians discuss appropriate policies to govern corporate sponsorship at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND)

The Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN) practice group within the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) has long been encouraging greater transparency about corporate sponsorship issues.  The AND (formerly known as the American Dietetic Association) serves as an influential advocate in U.S. nutrition policy and also as the professional association for registered dietitians.

My students and former students who are registered dietitians have worried about AND corporate sponsorships.  They send me a steady stream of awkward examples of ill-chosen sponsorships, for example with sugar sweetened beverage companies and meat checkoff programs.  One Friedman School graduate student, Ashley Colpaart (who for some years co-blogged here at U.S. Food Policy), has been proposing reforms for AND's corporate sponsorship practices for many years.

Other Friedman School graduate students conducted analyzed a survey of dietitians last year, noting that many dietitians share at least some of these concerns [small edit Feb. 3].  The article was an important source for Michele Simon's hard-hitting and highly critical report this week on AND corporate sponsorship.  The students, Lauren Adler, Alyssa Koomas, and Catherine Wright, wrote:
ADA’s corporate sponsorship program has become a topic of public discussion in recent years. A total of 370 HEN members were surveyed to shed light on member opinions of the corporate sponsorship program and whether our DPG approves or disapproves of the program. The majority of survey respondents appear to disapprove of the corporate sponsorship program, indicating that it negatively impacts their public image as food and nutrition professionals. Additionally, 61% of respondents were willing to pay higher ADA membership fees in order to decrease reliance on corporate sponsors.
In a letter to AND leadership last year (.pdf), some Hunger and Environmental Nutrition practice group members recounted the common experience of having their own independence called into question by others who were aware of the Academy's corporate sponsorship relationships:
[R]egardless if they are real or perceived, the influence of Academy corporate  sponsors has not only sparked scrutiny among journalists, but has led to several conversations in which members have had to defend these relationships and the profession at national conferences and forums. These confrontations have led to rising humiliation and a growing discomfort while fulfilling the role as Delegates. In some instances, this has led to long-­‐time members leaving the organization. We urge the Academy to uphold more transparent and stricter guidelines on access of corporate  sponsors to Academy leadership and to remove their presence at meetings, such as HOD [the AND House of Delegates], in which decisions about the profession and/or the organization are made. This will avoid conflict of interest, advance transparency, maintain professional and organizational integrity, and establish a more credible national presence.
It is difficult for any professional association to find a business model that works, providing needed support for association activities without conflicts of interests.  For example, the HEN practice group itself last year sought to develop its own policies for sponsorships (.pdf), describing the ideal potential sponsors as companies with a combination of nutrition and environmental virtues. I wish them well finding such terrific sponsors, but, realistically, we should admit that giving up compromised sponsorships may imply accepting a smaller scale of operation and revenue for a professional association.

Even recognizing those difficulties, it would have been wise for AND to listen to the input from its own internal rank and file.  As an outsider to AND, nutrition policy advocate Michele Simon offers much harsher criticism of the Academy in her report this week. With hindsight AND leaders might wish they had listened more sympathetically to internal concerns before matters came to this point.

When Marion Nestle blogged about this issue yesterday, generally agreeing with Simon's report, some of the open comments from dietitians were defensive, while others agreed with the concerns about corporate sponsorship.  Nestle has a very good follow-up post today, responding to the discussion so far.  The New York Times also covered this issue, which is unlikely to just fade away any time soon.

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