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Health research: Firms get leading experts — for a price

I recently heard a report on National Public Radio (NPR) about how BP is handing out lucrative research contracts (more than $200 per hour) to prominent marine scientists at Texas A&M, Louisiana State University and elsewhere — as long as the re

I recently heard a report on National Public Radio (NPR) about how BP is handing out lucrative research contracts (more than $200 per hour) to prominent marine scientists at Texas A&M, Louisiana State University and elsewhere — as long as the researchers sign a non-disclosure clause.

That’s right. They get the money if they don’t make their research findings public.

“[T]here is growing concern that some of the best minds are being sidelined, since they’ve signed on as paid consultants to BP,” reported NPR’s Tovia Smith.

I thought of that story when I read an article published Thursday on Alternet by Michele Simon, a public-health attorney and director of the California-based Center for Informed Food Choices. In it, she details how PepsiCo — makers of such “foods” as Cheetos, Doritos, Cap’N Crunch cereal, Mountain Dew and, of course, Pepsi-Cola — are, in the words of the article’s headline, “buying up high-ranking experts to look like a leader in health and nutrition.”

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One of those experts is Dr. Mehmood Khan, a familiar name here in Minnesota. He was once director of the Mayo Clinic’s diabetes, endocrinology and nutrition clinical unit. He also spent several years with the department of food, sciences and nutrition at the University of Minnesota.

Writes Simon:

Since 2007, PepsiCo has hired at least three noted international experts in medicine, science and public health. Their pedigrees span the world’s premier public health organization, America’s top public health governmental agency and the most respected medical and research academic institutions. Not bad HR recruitment.
According to an article published earlier this year in Business Week (“Pepsi Brings in the Health Police”) over the past two years, PepsiCo has hired a dozen physicians and PhDs. What are they up to exactly? Kahn explains that the goal is “to create healthy options while making the bad stuff less bad.”

The second international expert cited by Simon is Dr. George Mensah, who left the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (where he helped lead that agency’s fight against heart disease, stroke and colorectal cancer) to go to PepsiCo. The third is Derek Yach, who, says Simon, “earned his global health hero reputation as Representative of the Director General at the World Health Organization. There, he helped cement the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, an unprecedented global treaty that pitted Yach against the world’s most powerful tobacco industry leaders.”

Yach’s move to PepsiCo was a particularly bitter pill for health activists to swallow.

How does Yach explain his move to PepsiCo? Simon interviewed him in March, a conversation in which, she says, he used corporate-speak similar to that of Kahn:

The example he uses is how the R&D team is hard at work trying to make Cheetos lower in fat and sodium, with smaller portion sizes. He predicts that within five years, the product’s artificial coloring will be gone. But does any of this matter? Should people be eating such pseudo-foods in the first place? Yach rationalizes in his response: “While we are not likely to become a fresh fruit and vegetable company, we have made public commitments to increase the use of fruits, vegetables, nuts and whole grains in our products. A major challenge involves ensuring that we do so in ways that maximizes the full nutritional equivalence of whole foods in our future products.”
Full nutritional equivalence? I don’t recall seeing that in the U.S. dietary recommendations: “Eat foods with full nutritional equivalence.” But what else can you aspire to when your food products don’t fit into any actual food groups?

Simon’s article also describes the recent partnership between PepsiCo and Yale Medical School to fund a research lab that is going to focus on the “development of healthier food and beverage products that can improve people’s overall diets” and and the strange appearance of a “personal perspective” quote from PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi in this year’s annual report on obesity from the respected Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and Trust for America’s Health.

“[S]ince the food industry helped to create America’s obesity problem, the inclusion of Nooyi’s remarks in a public health report feel a bit like if Congress were to suddenly decide to give BP several pages with which to defend itself in forthcoming congressional reports on the oil spill,” writes Simon.

Hmmm. … Perhaps that’s not so unlikely after all.

Footnote: To its credit, PepsiCo announced earlier this year that starting Jan. 1, 2011, it will begin phasing out all of its sugared soft drinks from schools throughout the world. In contrast, its rival, Coca-Cola, has agreed to take its soft drinks out of primary schools only. It claims some schools’ administrators want the soft drinks in their schools “to meet hydration needs.” Perhaps someone should tell those administrators about the wonder of water.