Two AND members who feels very passionately about this issue are Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, and Elizabeth Lee, MS, RD, co-founders of Dietitians for Professional Integrity.
Bellatti - who has launched a petition on Change.org calling for AND to sever ties with so-called ‘junk food’ sponsors - and Lee, caught up with FoodNavigator-USA at AND’s Food and Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Houston to see what progress they are making in their campaign.
Your petition has now garnered almost 25,000 signatures. What response have you had from the Academy?
(AB) Dietitians for Professional Integrity was grateful to meet with AND leadership on Tuesday afternoon. We submitted our Change.org petition and got to explain our concerns and motivations. Academy leadership listened, and we are hopeful that this was the first step toward the dialogue we have been seeking on the issue of sponsorships.
Did you feel that corporate sponsorship undermined the integrity of this year's event?
(AB) I was in complete disbelief over the brand new photo ban on the expo floor this year; it came across as censorship and only brought more distrust to what is already a very touchy situation.
In past years, photography was always allowed on the expo floor. It was especially interesting that while most booths allowed attendees to take photos, it was the companies with the most ties to the Academy (largely Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) that upheld the ban.
The fact that there may be an underlying fear of photographs showing something negative tells me that someone, somewhere, knows how having some of these Big Food companies at a nutrition conference carries a very confusing message.
It was also disturbing to open my FNCE bag and come across an ‘aspartame is safe’ information sheet (via Coca-Cola's Beverage Health and Wellness Institute). An info sheet on aspartame comes across as a trade group doing damage control and free PR: The benefit is for them.
(EL) Aside from the heavy presence of sponsors in the expo, I found there was a lack of equal presentation from different sides during some of the sessions. For example, the session entitled ‘Sustainable Nutrition: Will We Be Able to Feed the World in 2050?’ was presented by the National Dairy Council, an Academy partner, and much of the presentation focused on how dairy is a sustainable method of providing adequate protein and nutrients.
With the lack of representation from scientists whose research have found conventional farming of dairy cows to be a contributor to overall environmental degradation, the information presented seemed unbalanced and favored an industry sponsor.
Where does your campaign over corporate sponsorship go from here?
(AB) From here, we will continue our advocacy efforts, raising awareness of why we are passionate about this cause, and hopefully simultaneously dialoguing with Academy leadership so that a serious conversation about - and review of - sponsorship can begin to take place.
We realize it will be a long, and at times intense, conversation, but it needs to happen.
There was a time when the American Medical Association had close ties to tobacco companies; initially, a small group of doctors expressed their concern. It finally took a while - and years of advocacy and conversations - but the AMA realized partnering with tobacco companies did not align with its mission.
Our hope is that, with time, the Academy will realize how partnerships with companies that are under continuous public scrutiny (and called out by other health organizations) are detrimental.
(EL) DFPI is hopeful that there will be continued discussion with AND leadership on corporate sponsorship. From the comments on our Facebook group and on Twitter, it is evident that DFPI's goals resonate with many RDs and dietetic students across the country. As some DFPI co-founders and supporters are members of the Academy, we'd like our professional organization to listen and work together with us to address this important issue.
Click on the link below to read our special feature on this issue.