Are we being fed big fat lies? (10/9/2005)




Are we being fed big fat lies?
The Times, September 10, 2005

In the summer of 2004, the media was obsessed with one sensational story: a three-year-old girl who had apparently died from being overweight. The news, leaked to Radio 4's Today programme, came from a report on childhood obesity that was expected to kickstart the Government into action.

When the House of Commons Health Committee published its Obesity Report on May 27 last year, its authors were blunt about the national health "crisis". Over ten months, the committee had conducted 69 witness interviews and produced 148 pages that demanded radical changes in government nutrition policy. For the food industry, this meant a widespread and costly set of new restrictions.

Our excess weight, the MPs concluded, was costing the NHS GBP7.4 billion a year, a figure expected to rise quickly. With childhood obesity having tripled in 20 years, this would be the first generation in which children died before their parents. "Wholesale cultural and societal changes" were needed urgently, they wrote, including an end to television advertising of unhealthy food to children, greater control over food labelling, and the threat of "direct regulation of the food industry" if it failed to co-operate.

However, the little girl's death, mentioned only briefly in the report, gave critics of government intervention an opportunity to question its entire credibility. Dr Sheila McKenzie, a paediatrician at the Royal London Hospital's obesity clinic, had sent in written evidence suggesting that the child had died from "heart failure where extreme obesity was a contributory factor".

This observation merited just one of the report's 510 paragraphs, but it gave the next day’s papers their story: "Obesity kills child aged 3". There was one problem. As the polemical website magazine Spiked (www.spiked-online.com) revealed on June 7, the girl - never identified - had been suffering from a rare genetic disorder that had caused her weight to swell. Dr McKenzie had not known this crucial detail.

The Health Committee’s critics wasted no time in using this singular discrepancy to undermine its wider competence. In a Daily Mirror article headlined "A big fat lie", Professor Tom Sanders, a media-friendly nutritionist at King's College London, cited the three-year-old as evidence that the MPs had been mistaken in other respects, too. It proved a busy week for Sanders. In The Daily Telegraph, he attacked the report’s authors for "tarting it up" to attract headlines; on the Today programme he accused them of letting themselves be "duped". He also had time to write an angry commentary in the Mail on Sunday, denouncing the report as "flawed, ill-researched and . . . factually wrong".

"It may surprise many readers to learn," Sanders wrote, "that most published studies do not show that overweight children report eating more 'junk food' than their lean peers." The problem, he suggested, was that the committee had been taken over by powerful "anti-food industry lobbyists" - a charge echoed by apparently independent think-tanks such as the Oxford-based Social Issues Research Centre (Sirc).

David Hinchliffe, then an MP and the Health Committee's chairman, smelt more than a rat. The aggressive media assaults on his committee, he believes, were symptomatic of wider behind-the-scenes manipulation by the food industry in a battle for public opinion.

"The food industry was concerned that we were pointing to the urgency of dealing with a problem directly related to their commercial interests," he says. "We didn't mention the three-year-old in our media summary, or even at our news conference. But she was used by those who wished to divert attention from the substance of the report. It was co-ordinated and used to discredit the report. It was a disgrace."

Is food policy in Britain being dictated by a "co-ordinated" industry campaign aimed at safeguarding corporate profits, as Hinchliffe is suggesting? Are vested commercial interests secretly using academics and media-savvy research bodies to shape public debate? These are bold claims, which industry bodies contacted by Body&Soul were quick to dismiss as baseless. Yet for most of us, bombarded daily by nutrition advice, it remains almost impossible to assess how impartial such messages are. How can we know if commercial interests are shaping our decisions about what we should be eating? The food industry certainly invests heavily in making its views known, from lobbying in Whitehall and Brussels to the development of "education" packs for schools. Far less apparent is the extent to which industry money funds research institutes, academic posts and "non-profit" bodies which articulate supportive views.

The problem for those seeking clarity is that much of the direct policy lobbying takes place in private. There is no public record of meetings between food-industry representatives and government departments. Only occasionally do leaked letters and memos reveal the extent to which ministers are swayed by industry interests. During the foot-and-mouth epidemic four years ago, for instance, Tony Blair dropped a previous commitment to vaccinate cattle after intense pressure led by Peter Blackburn, then the chief executive of Nestle UK and president of the industry pressure group, the Food and Drink Federation. Blackburn, according to a leaked document, stressed industry concern about the loss of meat and dairy exports; the PM appears to have been persuaded.

A more visible sign of the food industry’s reach at the heart of government is the role of the former supermarket group chairman Lord Sainsbury of Turville as science minister. His department controls the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), one of the main public bodies funding academic research in Britain, whose grant recipients are prevented from becoming "involved in political controversy" - by expressing any concerns, for instance, about genetically modified foods. Membership of the BBSRC's governing council - appointed by the trade secretary - suggests just how close are the links between industry, government and academia. They include professors with declared financial ties to GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, Syngenta and other businesses with a strong interest in food production.

When the industry wishes to suppress potentially damaging public debates, the pressure it applies can be breathtaking. The Institute for Food Research (IFR), a charity in Norwich financed by the BBSRC, was retained by The Times in 2003 to assess health claims made on food labels. After Masterfoods took exception to the IFR food scientist's independent view of a "positively healthy" Mars chocolate drink, the institute abruptly terminated the arrangement.

Industry money is also used more directly to support academic research considered helpful. Dr Susan Jebb, a nutritionist based at the Medical Research Council, criticised the Atkins diet two years ago as a "massive health risk" whose claims lacked scientific evidence. Her impartiality was later questioned when it emerged that the Flour Advisory Bureau - representing a sector hit by this low-carb fad - had paid her employer a reported GBP20,000 to produce two diet-based reports written by Dr Jebb. Although she denied any conflict of interest, the media reporting her initial comments appeared unaware of the financial context. Without such disclosure, it is impossible for consumers to make up their own minds.

It is a discrepancy that can suit food-industry interests well. When newspapers report, for instance, the latest dietary findings of the Social Issues Research Centre, rarely do they point out that recent Sirc contributors include Cadbury Schweppes, Kellogg's, Masterfoods and the Sugar Bureau.

Tom Sanders has links with the Sirc, whose website carries his earlier controversial claims - such as that giving free fruit to schoolchildren "can cause malnutrition".

David Hinchliffe, the former Health-Committee chairman, remains convinced that Sanders was speaking for commercial interests when he attacked the committee. Sanders, he told the House of Commons last February, was "at the heart of this affair . . . Sanders acts as a consultant to the food industry, and was obviously wheeled out to do a hatchet job on its behalf".

Sanders rejects as "spiteful and false" Hinchliffe's claim that he was behind the rubbishing of the report, or that he received industry money to do so.

"The implication that I was somehow involved in a conspiracy on behalf of vested interests is untrue," Sanders says. "I chose to become involved when I read it and saw how the Select Committee had been manipulated."

Public-health campaigners raise further questions about Sanders’s links to Spiked, the online magazine that "exposed" the flaws in the Health Committee's report. Spiked, which has regularly challenged the "myth" of childhood obesity, declares funding from Sirc, as well as an American website, Tech Central Station, whose "publisher" is DCI Group, a US lobbying firm. And who funds Tech Central Station? Foodindustry giants including Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, among others.

None of this, of course, proves any direct link between corporate money, "independent" advocacy groups and journalists and a string of media articles which deny the existence of an obesity crisis - and indeed any need for government action. As Sanders tells it, he knows the Sirc and Spiked crowds "just as a source of gossip but I have never received any money from them". Spiked's managing editor, Helene Guldberg, insists that "whoever we receive funding from does not interfere with what we write". Still, unless these financial links are made clear whenever such views are aired, it is easy to understand why those concerned about food policy can accuse the industry of using secretive financial ties to distort public debate. "Corporations have learnt that they can influence public opinion and public policy more effectively by working through seemingly independent organisations," says Michael Jacobson, of the Washington-based Centre for Science in the Public Interest, which campaigns for greater transparency.

After all, until the media challenge this veil of secrecy, how can we have an objective debate on important matters that affect all of us?

Who's paying the piper?

It may surprise you to discover the extent to which the food industry funds "independent" scientific bodies. Does this affect the views expressed? You judge next time a food story hits the headlines:


Calls itself "A scientific and educational charity which promotes the wellbeing of society through the impartial interpretation of evidence-based nutritional knowledge".

Need to know: It is the voice of established food companies. Its governing council includes representatives of Associated British Foods, Nestle, Kellogg's and Cadbury Schweppes.


Calls itself "A non-profit, worldwide foundation that seeks to improve the wellbeing of the general public through the advancement of science (and) collaborates with international health organisations ... to develop science-based consensus."

Need to know: This is one of the biggest international food-lobbying outfits. It seeks to influence the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation and the WHO. It claims that "intake of sugars is inversely associated with the prevalence of obesity", which may suit the interests of founding companies such as Coca-Cola, General Foods and Kraft Foods.


Calls itself "An independent, non-profit organisation founded to conduct research on lifestyle issues (and) provide a balanced, calm and thoughtful perspective on social issues."

Need to know: Sirc's thoughtful perspective may chime with the views of recent sponsors Cadbury Schweppes, Kellogg’s, Masterfoods and the Sugar Bureau; such as its study dismissing the child obesity epidemic as a myth and rejecting calls to ban junk-food adverts.


Calls itself "An independent venture working to promote the voices, stories and views of the scientific community to the news media when science is in the headlines"

Need to know: Although housed in the Royal Institution’s London offices, the SMC receives funding from the Chilled Food Association, Kraft, Tesco, Tate & Lyle and Unilever (and media organisations including the parent company of The Times). Its press release accompanying the Obesity Report last May contained stark warnings against needless government intervention: there remained "real uncertainties about the causes of obesity" and "a lot more research" was now needed, declared some scientists quoted.


Calls itself "An independent medical organisation established to raise awareness of the growing impact of obesity on our patients and our National Health Service."

Need to know The NOF lobbies MPs and the media about the "alarming levels of obesity" in the UK, "a serious medical problem" for which it demands action. Yet it, too, has "been supported" by companies such as Slim Fast Foods, Canderel and drug companies with an interest in obesity management.

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