Is sugar industry influencing scientists?
Sugar is already under the spotlight for all the wrong reasons – think dental cavities, obesity, diabetes and liver dysfunction. But now the workings of the sugar industry have been called into question too.
A new investigation by the BMJ, previously known as the British Medical Journal, has unearthed the extent of the sugar industry's involvement with public health research.
In a series of articles, the BMJ claims public health experts in the United Kingdom are involved with food companies through research grants, consultancy fees and other forms of funding.
While the investigation has met swift reaction by UK researchers who deny being compromised by project funding, the rest of the world has remained relatively quiet on the issue. Concern around conflicts of interest, however, apply to most countries, New Zealand included, says a leading academic in the nutrition field.
University of Otago professor of human nutrition and medicine Jim Mann says there is no question that industry puts money into research in New Zealand – be it nutrition research, pharmaceutical research or other fields of health.
In most cases, project funding can't be fully met by the public purse so industry funding becomes a necessity, says Mann. "As in any other country, people (scientists) may be put in a difficult situation as a result."
While the source of funding should not have any impact on research results, Mann does not know to what extent researchers are influenced.
MAINTAINING THE BOUNDARIES
As a member of the World Health Organization (WHO) nutrition advisory committee, Mann himself cannot accept funding or gifts of any kind from the commercial sector.
"I'm glad that while with WHO, I've been in a position where I've not been able to accept funding for any project I've lead. I don't even feel able to accept an invitation to go out to lunch," he says.
But that's not always the case in the research field.
The BMJ states members of two key government-funded organisations in the UK – the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and the Medical Research Council's Human Nutrition Research unit (MRC) – have received research funding from organisations including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestle, Weight Watchers International and more.
Others received consultancy fees from food companies and have sat on advisory boards for them.
An analysis of declarations of interest by SACN members alone, showed that in 12 years from 2001 to 2012, there were 539 individual declarations of involvement with commercial organisations, including food firms, industry groups and drug companies.
Of the 40 scientists affiliated with SACN during that time, only 13 had no interests to declare.
FUNDING PRESSURES TO BLAME
Alan Jackson, former chair of the SACN, blames government funding policy for driving scientists into the arms of industry. He told The BMJ that members of SACN followed "to the letter" guidance on transparency and declarations of interest. Insufficient funding from government places individual scientists "in the invidious position of particular vulnerability to being conflicted," he said.
The MRC stressed that the income it receives doesn't benefit researchers personally but instead goes into the unit's central budget to fund project activities and cover costs. Researchers add that working with food companies helps turn ideas into new interventions and aids the development of solutions that will benefit the public.
One of the researchers named by The BMJ is Susan Jebb, professor of diet and population health at the University of Oxford and chair of the food network for the UK government's Public Health Responsibility Deal. She defended her involvement with the industry, telling The BMJ, "Everything I do, whether in my research or as chair of the responsibility deal, is to try to improve public health. I do think that requires discussions with the food industry, and I think it is appropriate that we should be encouraging them to invest in research conducted by independent scientists."
PRACTICE HAS GLOBAL IMPACT
The BMJ article notes, from the perspective of global food and drink companies, the SACN and MRC members are just one small group of public health specialists in one relatively small market. "But multiply this purchased engagement with public health across all global territories and the scale of this tactic can begin to be appreciated."
Mann confirms that government funding could never cover the cost of all the research undertaken in New Zealand and often academics must rely on commercial sector funding. It's just the reality.
But local research is one small part of the equation, he notes. New Zealand is heavily influenced by the research and directives that come out of the UK and the US, as their policies on food trickle down to us.
"International recommendations on sugar have a profound impact on the rest of the world. If, for example, a recommendation suggesting you cut down on sugar goes through – or is blocked – we either benefit or are disadvantaged by not having that filter through to us," says Mann.
"What goes on in the international scene influences New Zealand," he adds.