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Conflict of interest? On the sugar payroll

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn , 20-Jan-2014
Last updated the 20-Jan-2014 at 15:54 GMT

A Channel 4 Dispatches programme to be aired in the UK this evening is to accuse scientists advising health ministers on sugar of a conflict of interest due to funds some receive from the food industry.

The UK investigative programme claims that five out of the seven members of the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) carbohydrates panel, headed by chief scientist Professor Ian Macdonald, have received funds in some way from chocolate, ice cream and fizzy drink companies like Mars, Unilever, Coca-Cola and Barry Callebaut as well as the lobby group Sugar Nutrition. The scientific advisers have been working on an independent report intended to address the growing issue of obesity in the UK and the role of carbohydrates like sugar. 

However, the Department of Health said that all these transactions had been declared. 

Sugar daddies

The programme says that the panel's chief scientist, Professor Ian Macdonald of Nottingham University, resumed his work on the advisory boards of Coca-Cola and Mars in 2012, having stepped down in 2009. It also claims that he receives funding from Unilever, the world’s largest ice cream manufacturer.

According to the programme, Nottingham University has received over £1m in the last three years from the food industry, of which £300,000 came from Mars.  

The programme will also claim that along with Professor Macdonald, four of the other seven committee members receive funds from the food or sugar industry including one who Channel 4 says acts as a consultant for cocoa giant Barry Callebaut, and two who receive funding directly from sugar lobby group Sugar Nutrition.

Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of sugar reduction campaigning group Action on Sugar, told FoodNavigator that he could not comment directly on this case without seeing details, yet said that it was a scandal in itself that so little had been done to reduce sugar. 

He said that if he were a member of a company like Mars he would perceive this hold up as good for business. He said however this need not be the case. “Action on Sugar also works with the food industry but we don’t stand any nonsense from them,” he said.

Anything to declare?

Professor Macdonald told the programme makers that this money was received as funding for university research, as opposed to a sum sent directly to him. He said that the resumption of his work for Coca-Cola and Mars had been approved at the “highest level” and that he “cannot be bought”.

According to Channel 4 the UK’s Department of Health said: “Professor Ian Macdonald has fully declared his conflicts of interest in accordance with the Code of Practice. He is a highly respected figure within the public health community and has made a valuable contribution to research into obesity and nutrition.”

Professor Macdonald said that he believes the public has an absolute right to know this information, yet they also need to be aware of the basis on which university research is funded. "It’s what’s called a mixed portfolio of funding from government sources, from charities and from industry,” he told the Channel 4 journalist. 

He said that while potential bias must be a consideration it would be very difficult for the committee in question to have any kind of private decision making meetings. 

Industry tie-up 

In a statement Coca-Cola said that Professor Macdonald was awarded an honorarium of £6,185. "During the period that Professor Macdonald was chairing the carbohydrate review he stepped down from our advisory board by mutual agreement."

Responding to the report, a Mars spokesperson said: “Mars is committed to working with others, including academia and research centres, to address challenges that face both our business and society. As part of this commitment, we invest significantly in research and scientific discovery – particularly in health and nutrition - and apply this learning to our products.

"One way in which Mars accesses the best possible science, advice and expertise is through the Mars Science Advisory Council (MSAC). MSAC comprises world-renowned scientists from fields relevant to the Mars business. These external scientists engage with Mars, Incorporated’s science leadership to advise on matters related to research programmes and product developments.”

Dr Glenys Jones, nutritionist and nutrition communications manager at Sugar Nutrition UK, rejected the label of lobby group.  "Our role is to clarify science, to respond to consultations and to communicate with the media and the public on the scientific facts about sugars in a healthy balanced diet.  We are not lobbyists and have no role in the Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) carbohydrate working group and no influence on it either. We have had no discussions about its findings and will learn of these only when SACN make their conclusions public," she told FoodNavigator. 

Jones also said that the Sugar Nutrition had commissioned a number of studies over the years concerning diet and that any research involving committee members had been declared in the Code of Conduct for Scientific Advisory Committees. 

"They [Professors Young and Lovegrove] personally, have received no direct funding from us.  The fact that the Government has appointed these professors to advisory panels is hardly surprising given that they wish to take advice from the nation’s leading experts," she said. 

While Barry Callebaut told Food Navigator: "Barry Callebaut is not funding any research institute or scientist on any research connected to sugar."