The BMJ investigation claims to reveal a ‘network of links’ between public health scientists and the sugar industry - and suggests that many of the UK's top public health policy experts may be biased by food industry ties.
It suggests that research funding provided by major food firms including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Mars, Unilever and Nestlé is swaying the impartiality of public health scientists and UK government committee members – such as those who sit on the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).
Indeed, the BMJ article suggests that Professor Susan Jebb, chair of the UK Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) Food and Drink Network has attracted more than £1.3M of industry funding, while SACN chair Professor Ian Macdonald had received funding from Coca-Cola and Mars – which may mean that the group’s recommendations would be ‘prejudiced by commercial factors’.
However, experts accused the journal of attacking scientists’ integrity and undermining good research with limited evidence of any wrongdoing.
Professor Tom Sanders of King’s College London said the criticism of Jebb and her colleagues was unfair, adding that “any suggestion that government advisers are ‘bent’ because of their relationships with the food industry (grants, advisory bodies) is toxic and plays into the hands of those with political motives for changing the food agenda which are not science-based.”
“Prof Susan Jebb is unfairly vilified in the context of sugar and health – especially as she was an author of papers suggesting a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.”
Meanwhile, Public Health England said it welcomed industry ‘listening to our best scientists’.
Lack of evidence
The BMJ implies that industry funding for research projects Jebb led as part of her employment with the UK Medical Research Council has compromised her role as Chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal, Professor Jebb said, responding that it “fails to provide any evidence to support this".
“It refers to a series of studies in which I was involved which included funding from industry. None of these involve research into the effects of sugar on health. All these projects were complete by 2010 at the latest, pre-dating my role as Chair of the Responsibility Deal Food Network,” said Jebb. “I have received no personal remuneration from any of these projects."
“All have been conducted according to all the MRC governance arrangements for working with industry and the industry involvement has been declared,” she said.
Professor Stephen O'Rahilly from the University of Cambridge, and director of the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit, added: “It would be a damaging blow to science and to public health if any contact between scientists in academia and those in the food industry was automatically seen as contaminated. There is a long history of collaboration between academic researchers and the food industry which has, over the years, resulted in some policies of benefit to international public health.”
Hard evidence, not insinuation
Dr Aseem Malholtra, a UK-based cardiologist and science director at sugar campaign group Action on Sugar, said the BMJ findings were ‘disturbing'.
“I think the public would be appalled that the people advising them on what they eat are receiving money from the food industry,” he told RT news.
“We know that biased funding for research is one of the root causes of problems within healthcare at the moment. Whether it's food industry funding or pharmaceutical funding.”
However, Catherine Collins, spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association added that it is ‘disconcerting’ to read the BMJ exposure of such links – not because they exist, but that “a journalist feels it necessary to impugn good collaborative studies between industry and independent nutrition researchers based at the MRC and in UK universities.”
“Science should deal in hard evidence, not insinuation,” said Collins.
Indeed, Professor Richard Mithen, acting director of the Institute of Food Research, said that it is ‘entirely appropriate’ that universities and publically supported research organisations such as the MRC HNR work in a constructive manner with industry for the public good.
“These research organisations provide a service to health professionals and consumers through conducting independent trials of new food products or ingredients with appropriate contractual agreements that all results will be published regardless of outcome, even if these studies are partly or entirely funded by industry,” said Mithen. “It would not be feasible or appropriate if the costs of these studies were to fall upon the public purse, or for these studies to be undertaken by the commercial sector themselves and not subject to external scrutiny.”
“Furthermore it is entirely unjustified to imply lack of integrity of individual scientists that have accepted funding for their research programmes from industry and who have made appropriate declarations of funding sources.
O'Rahilly added that the ‘positive relationship’ between academics and industry “relies on complete academic freedom to interpret and write up results.”
“That freedom has been the norm and we must be vigilant to preserve it,” he added – noting that it would be ‘very harmful for society’ if academics could never collaborate with industry to investigate questions relevant to public health.
“However, the direct involvement of the food industry in bodies concerned with government policy is a separate issue and in my view should be debated separately.”
Published online, open access, doi: 10.1136/bmj.h231
“Sugar: spinning a web of influence”
Author: Jonathan Gornall