An investigative report from The BMJ claims to expose “extensive links” – going much deeper than previously known – between public health scientists and the sugar industry.
Although the investigation was conducted in the UK, the report is bound to raise questions in other countries, as the findings implicate international food and drinks manufacturers.
“Without doubt this is a major issue for the US,” report author Jonathan Gornell confirmed to Medical News Today.
Across the four-part investigation, Jonathan Gornell reports evidence of a government committee working on nutritional advice receiving funding from companies whose products are considered by many to be responsible for the ongoing obesity crisis.
The BMJ claim that the report raises “important questions about the potential for bias and conflict of interest among public health experts.”
Members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition and the Medical Research Council’s Human Nutrition Research unit (HNR) were found to have received funding from sugar giants including Coca-Cola, Mars, Nestlé, Sainsbury’s, the Institute of Brewing and Distilling and Weight Watchers International, among others.
The extent of these donations was found to be unprecedented, with one former HNR researcher – Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford and chair of the British government’s Responsibility Deal Food Network – accepting funding worth $2.10 million from companies such as Coca-Cola between 2004 and 2015.
As principal investigator, Jebb also received a donation of $297,000 from Coca-Cola to one study she was working on.
Some of the companies who invested in Jebb’s research – including Unilever and Coca-Cola – are now members of the government’s Responsibility Deal, which she chairs. Under the deal, the sugar industry pledges to a government target of a national 5% reduction in calorie consumption.
However, the new report states that companies have not upheld this pledge and the initiative has been ineffective, with a calorie increase of almost 12% in the national weekly shop during 2006-14.
“For me the most surprising discovery was that an entire generation of public health researchers have not only convinced themselves that accepting funding from companies peddling unhealthy products is acceptable practice, but also that they seem genuinely surprised that such relationships might raise concerns about the impartiality of their work,” Gornell told MNT.
“That is not to say that such work is, consciously or otherwise, necessarily biased,” he clarified, “but for public health messages to be credible they have to be delivered free of even the possibility of commercial taint.”
According to Gornell, a core issue is the paucity of public research funding. The UK government instead encourages its public research organizations to seek commercial funding, making researchers vulnerable to accusations of conflicts of interest:
“Public health is the business of government, and not the business of big business. Industry’s legal obligation is to its shareholders, for whom it must make as much money as possible. If it can do that while striking a socially responsible pose, it will do so, but when the bottom line is under threat, social responsibility is exposed as a tokenistic charade.”
Gornell’s report references research that has found evidence of pro-industry bias in some sponsored studies. However, he says that the main concern of the research was “the general principle” rather than documenting bias in specific papers:
“How can it be right for a researcher attempting to establish whether or not ingredient X is harmful to accept funding to do so from the manufacturer of ingredient X? Would society consider it acceptable if the salary or expenses of a judge ruling on a legal dispute were paid by one of the parties?”