November 11, 2012 by hpworley
Can the food industry be a friend to public health? A friend—probably not, a frenemy—maybe. A frenemy as defined by urbandictionary.com(1) (and teenage girls) is, “Someone who is both friend and enemy, a relationship that is both mutually beneficial or dependent while being competitive, fraught with risk and mistrust.” While the idealist in me screams these unions must be prohibited, the pragmatist in me knows the likelihood of that happening is slim.
Common sense dictates that partnership, participation or engagement, however you want to term it, is going to result in, at the very least an unspoken understanding of mutual support. An attitude of “I’ll scratch your back, if you scratch mine.” Dr. Yoni Freedhoff’s presentation at the Obesity Society (2) convention presented data from study by Lesser et al (3) that found there was a 7.61% odds ratio of finding a favorable result versus and unfavorable result when comparing studies with industry funding versus studies without industry funding, respectively. That’s a shocking number. In some instances these partnerships just feel wrong. Case in point, “Buckets for a Cure” where 50 cents of every bucket of chicken from Kentucky Fried Chicken purchased goes to the Susan G. Komen’s foundation for breast cancer research.
The food industry is a powerful entity. They have money, influence and power. They make things happen. Given enough money, the right celebrity and the best air time on TV—there’s very little they can’t sell you. How many American’s watch the Super Bowl just for the commercials? Betty White playing football, talking trash—until she eats a Snickers bar, priceless. Even now, it makes me want a Snickers bar. They are a powerful partner for the health industry who lacks enough money and perhaps the glamor to support their messages. The ultimate question and concern though, how does this alter the message?
At the very least government, non-government and industry professionals are coming together in forums to discuss these relationships, their impact on one another and their impact on the public as described in Building Public-Private Partnerships in Food and Nutrition Workshop Summary (4). The premise of these workshops is that trust can be established and true bonds of collaboration can be developed. I agree with Lesser et al (3) that academic institutions accepting money from industry organizations must still have final say in the published product. Also that there should be a limitations making it more difficult for industry funded research studies to be published in journals–which could potentially decrease desire for the food industry to play a role in research at all. Though these guidelines would likely still do little to defer influence. Regardless of everyone’s best intentions, so long as the food industry’s ultimate goal is profit and the health industry’s goal in public health, it will be incredibly difficult for the frenemy state of this relationship to mature into that of a true friendship.
1) Anonymous Nick. Urban Dictionary. Retrieved from: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=frenemy
2) Y Freedhoff. (2011, October 8). Weighty Matters: Food Industry Friend or Foe. Retrieved from: http://www.weightymatters.ca/2011/10/food-industry-friend-or-foe-videos-of.html
3) Lesser LI, Ebbeling CB, Goozner M, Wypij D, Ludwig DS (2007) Relationship between
funding source and conclusion among nutrition-related scientific articles. PLoS Med 4(1): e5. doi:10.
4) Pray L & Pillsbury L. (2012). Building Public-Private Partnerships in Food and Nutrition:
Workshop Summary. The National Academies. Retrieved from: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13412