Food industry slams BMJ sugar row ‘madness’

By Michael Stones contact

- Last updated on GMT

It was 'madness' to undermine the credibility of food science with unsubstantiated allegations, said the IFST
It was 'madness' to undermine the credibility of food science with unsubstantiated allegations, said the IFST

Related tags: Public health, Nutrition

Food manufacturers and scientists have hit back at “the madness” of British Medical Journal (BMJ), in publishing a survey which claimed the government’s scientific advisers on obesity were swayed by industry funding.

The BMJ article claimed to disclose evidence of “the extraordinary extent to which key public health experts are involved with the sugar industry and related companies responsible for many of the products blamed for the obesity crisis through research grants, consultancy fees, and other forms of funding”.

It questioned the independence of members of the government advisory panel, the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition, claiming they received financial backing from food and drink companies such as Pepsi, Mars and Nestlé.

The article further claimed professor Susan Jebb, chair of the Public Health Responsibility Deal (PHRD) Food and Drink Network and University of Oxford academic had attracted more than £1.3M of industry funding.

‘Weaken public health efforts’

Such links “create bias”, ​said BMJ editor-in-chief Fiona Godlee. They “weaken public health efforts to tackle the harmful effect of sugar on the diet”,​ she told BBC Radio Four’s Today​ programme yesterday (February 12).

But the Institute of Food Science & Technology (IFST) dismissed the claims as unhelpful and confusing for the public. “It is madness to undermine the credibility of food science in such a sweeping and unsubstantiated way,”​ IFST ceo Jon Poole told FoodManufacture.co.uk.

Prof Jebb responds

“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.”

“These stories can so quickly and drastically destroy a lot of the positive research and real change that has been brought about, in this instance, by industry over the last few years,”​ he said.

“Most importantly, these stories harm the public perception of science and the scientific process as a whole. Consumers conclude – ‘yet again scientists can’t make up their mind’ and so decide to take no action. We saw this with climate change where, even today, a significant number of the general public do not believe human intervention is behind climate change!”

The Food and Drink Federation’s director of regulation, science and health Barbara Gallani said: “The BMJ articles completely fail to recognise the robust systems in place to ensure the research is transparent, is independently reviewed and that potential conflicts of interest are declared and addressed.”

The articles on the work of the PHRD failed to reflect the progress made in reducing calories, including those from sugars, and industry initiatives to promote active lifestyles and provide clear on-pack information, she said.

‘Unjustified attacks’

“The causes of obesity are hugely complex, including but not limited to diet, and there is a strong need to work collaboratively to deliver solutions rather than devising unjustified attacks on the professional integrity of the UK's leading science experts and research bodies.“

Jebb, who is professor of Diet and Population Health at the University of Oxford, rejected the accusations. “The ​[BMJ] article by Jonathan Gornall implies that industry funding for research projects I led as part of my employment with the UK Medical Research Council ​[MRC] has compromised my role as chair of the Public Health ResponsibilityDeal, but fails to provide any evidence to support this.”

The article referred to a series of studies Jebb worked on, 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,” ​she said.

“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.”

Meanwhile, read the BMJ article, Sugar: spinning a web of influence, here​. 

Related news

Show more

Related product

Follow us

Products

View more

Webinars