The Lorax isn’t directly connected with the dietetic field, but if he speaks for the trees then they are speaking for the health of humanity. The Lorax’s sage words, “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, Nothing is going to get better. It’s not,” could be the motto of a recently formed group called Dietitians for Professional Integrity.
For now their presence is largely on Facebook and they’re working together, with both dietitians and concerned citizens, to make sure the field’s largest trade organization, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), hears not just their complaints but their calls to action.
See, the AND accepts sponsorship dollars to keep their organization rolling. But Andy Bellatti, creator of Dietitians for Professional Integrity, and his colleagues are calling bull – these sponsorships are paid for by the very brands these professionals are working hard against.
“Our main initiative is to have the Academy cut ties with its current sponsors,” noted Bellatti.
When you take a look at their on-going corporate sponsors, that’s where you can see how these dietitians are saying the AND “soils the good name of registered dietitians,” according to our Mary Hartley, RD.
Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Hershey, Abbott Nutrition (which produces Similac), General Mills, and Kellogg’s are some of the organization’s major sponsors. It’s cause for red flags amongst the organization’s members and the citizens who support this movement.
“The big picture issue is how Coca-Cola teaches webinars to RDs, how McDonald’s serves lunch at the California Dietetic Association conference, and how PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are financial contributors to the Academy’s Evidence Analysis Library,” declared Bellatti. To that, Monsanto sponsored the New York State Dietetic Association’s annual meeting.
“The organization chooses to align itself with these brands. It’s misguided,” he said. “It makes us look tone deaf during a public health crisis.”
These highly-educated professionals are working hard to make a difference in their clients’ lives by helping them learn more about nutrition, the difference between healthful and harmful foods, and how to strike the balance of it all. It makes it pretty difficult to advocate for health when your work is blatantly contradicted.
For Bellatti and his peers, it’s not just that a soda brand is sponsoring, but that their sub-brands are involved, too. For instance, Both Coca-Cola and its subsidiary Truvia are named as AND corporate sponsors. For many of these companies, Dietitians for Professional Integrity finds their environmental practices problematic, calling the build-up of plastic water bottles from brands like Dasani or Aquafina “an environmental nightmare.” They take issue with worker’s rights, for instance the rampant use of child trafficking and labor in the cocoa production industry, something LaborRights.org pins Hershey for lagging behind its competitors on making changes. And they’re not impressed by many corporate behaviors of these Big Food companies, like when they actively fought against GMO labeling during the prop 37 vote in California last year.
These brands who sponsor the Academy fought hard with their dollars to stop the GMO labeling vote from passing. According to Cornucopia.org, their anti-labeling expenditures added up to:
Coca Cola – $1.16 million
Pepsico – $1.71 million
Kellogg’s – $632,500
General Mills – $520,000
Abbott Nutrition (which owns Similac) – $187,599
No surprise, the Academy has not voiced endorsement of major health initiatives like GMO labeling, limits on soda sizes, and soda taxes. Who would want to upset the guys paying the bills?
The final straw for Bellatti and his peers was a report published in January by public health attorney Michele Simon entitled, And Now a Word from Our Sponsors. The report asks, “Are America’s nutrition professionals in the pocket of Big Food?” and then puts the reputation of dietitians everywhere on the line when it argues that, “While the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ 74,000-member trade group partners with the likes of Coke and Hershey’s, the nation’s health continues to suffer from poor diet.”
Bellatti stated that “The AND goes against any semblance of health and wellness,” and that the buzz around Simon’s report made it the perfect time to turn their individual complaints in to a movement.
Their target is, of course, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Despite what Bellatti calls years of emails, letters, and even Tweets, he says their outreach goes unanswered. Days after our interview, Bellatti contacted us to correct that Academy President-Elect Dr. Sonja L. Connor had replied to a letter drafted by the group in which they expressed a desire to engage in dialogue. And when asked why the AND seemingly ignored their pleas and position, Ryan O’Malley, a media relations manager for the AND, told us “The Academy responds to all member questions and concerns.”
Were those responses as generic as the “We stand by our corporate sponsorships” replies Bellatti said he’d once received?
At no point in our brief emails with O’Malley were we able to get a straight answer to our questions. When asked how the organization defends such sponsorships, he gave us an obvious answer that it’s “a common occurrence” for non-profits to have corporate sponsors or to seek them. He also cited that the Academy has “stringent guidelines” for its sponsorships, however Simon’s January report claims that “Sponsors and their activities appear to violate the Academy’s own sponsorship guidelines.”
We spoke to Michele Simon and, while she names a number of examples in her report, she told us of one in particular. The AND guidelines state that their educational materials shouldn’t use brand names because it implies endorsement. However, in a webinar on dairy, Kix cereal, made by corporate sponsor General Mills, was specifically cited as a source of calcium.
Likewise, their corporate sponsors like Coke, Kraft, and Nestle are approved as continuing education providers. Simon asks, “doesn’t that seem to violate your policy?”.
What the The Dietitians for Professional Integrity wants is a new look at how sponsorships are handled. “We don’t think all sponsorships are bad,” said Bellatti. He wants the AND to think outside the food industry box and find other sources beyond that.
This summer, Bellatti’s group has launched a petition calling for the AND to drop certain partnerships and review its sponsorship guidelines.
Simon is hopeful about the response this group will receive from the AND.
“I think it’s a really great step to have this group of RDs band together and speak out about their leadership,” she said. As for the AND? “They ignore the criticism at their own peril.”
Much like the greed of the Onceler left him standing alone after he’d destroyed all the trees without heeding The Lorax’s warnings, the AND could be left standing in a desert of their own mistakes.
Simon noted “what appears to be a mass exodus of members.” She’s amazed the number of comments she sees from RDs saying they won’t renew their memberships. Simon calls it a real call for concern that the AND has RDs who aren’t willing to be members of their organization; more concerning, she keeps hearing from people who are choosing not to go the RD route because of the sponsorship conflicts.
“Times are changing, and there appears to be an old guard,” said Simon. “I think the newer, younger generation is hip to that and isn’t going to stand for it.”