20 September 2017

How the food industry fudges science

Obesity Public Health

Exposed emails from former executives at soft drink giant Coca-Cola highlight the way the food industry has adopted the same playbook as some in the tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical industries to distort the scientific discourse for commercial gain, Australian experts say.

Generating their own evidence around the causes of obesity, infiltrating medical and professional bodies, and instilling doubt in the public about non-favourable research were some of the tactics outlined in the emails.

In his report on the emails, Dr Gary Sacks, a senior research fellow at the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University, urged the medical community to be aware research was seen as “a tool through which food companies can overcome threats to their profits”.

External organisations and individuals were “depicted as pawns to be used to overcome the global scientific and regulatory challenges faced by the industry”, he said.

Using a freedom of information request, Dr Sacks and his colleagues obtained emails between former senior Coca-Cola executives from 2015.

Of the two key subjects in the emails, Alex Malaspina was a senior vice president at the company before launching a powerful food industry-funded group, and Michael Knowles was the former vice president of Global Scientific and Regulatory Affairs at the company and later president of the Mr Malaspina’s lobby group.

Mr Malaspina maintained contact with the company’s executives during this time, Dr Sacks said.

As well as commissioning their own evidence to shape the discussion on the causes of obesity, Mr Knowles emphasised the need to use external organisations to generate “credible, consensus science on the issues hitting the industry – obesity and causative factors, sugar, low/no calorie safety”.

“We all belong to one or more of these [scientific societies] and we should have leadership roles in the key ones and push for individual issues to be addressed by public conference/workshops,” Mr Knowles told Mr Malaspina.

“We do have good contacts in some [medical associations] and we should encourage them to address public health matters and ‘suggest’ appropriate topics,” he said. “We can … suggest some form of debate on the issues [at the National Academies of Science], ensuring, of course, that the debaters are balanced!”

Meanwhile in 2015, Coca-Cola was in hot water for funding health groups such as the Global Energy Balance Network which paid for research to support the idea that a lack of exercise was to blame for the obesity epidemic, and not a poor diet.

But Dr Sacks said that these emails show that move was part of a bigger strategy.

“We know that part of the reason that globally there’s been a lack of policies for obesity prevention is due to the influence of the food industry,” he said. “The tactics that this article outlines are exactly the same tactics used by tobacco, alcohol and pharmaceutical companies.”

Dr Sacks and his colleagues are calling for clearer policies around conflicts of interests to be adopted by professional groups, patient groups and in university research departments.

Crit Public Health 2017; online 13 September