Big Food, Big Agra, and the Research University

Article excerpt

Food scientist Marion Nestle talks with Academe about conflicts of interest between food companies and academics, the difference between food products and food, and the problem with pomegranates.

Marion Nestle is Paulette Goddard Professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. From 1986 to 1988, she was senior nutrition policy adviser in the Department of Health and Human Services, and she was managing editor of the 1988 Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health. Her research examines scientific, economic, and social influences on food choice. Nestle is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (2002; revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003; revised edition, 2010), and What to Eat (2006). She has a monthly Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle and a daily blog, Twitterers can follow her @marionnestle, and she can be reached by e-mail at

Cat Warren: This issue of Academe is generally devoted to research conflicts of interest across university disciplines. Agriculture and food sciences are obviously not exempt from these problems, but we hear much less about them than we do, for instance, about conflicts of interest in medical research. But you have written at some length on such topics as food-company sponsorship of nutrition research. What are your perceptions about where the general problems lie in the disciplines you're engaged with?

Marion Nestle: In my field, sad to say, conflicts of interest between food companies and academics are rampant but rarely recognized as such. As I document throughout Food Politics, soft-drink companies such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo lose no opportunity to sponsor professional meetings; provide training positions; send free samples and technical materials; and support professional newsletters, teaching materials, and journals. The sponsorship list of any nutrition professional society is likely to contain dozens of food companies, and many university nutrition departments actively seek support from food companies.

Just this year, for example, PepsiCo established an MD-PhD training position at Yale University, and Coca-Cola gave a grant to the American Academy of Family Physicians for Web-based educational materials. My own professional group, the American Society for Nutrition, actually competed to manage the ill-fated Smart Choices labeling program sponsored by those and other beverage and food-product companies. Despite much evidence to the contrary, academics who accept such funding still tend to believe that it neither does harm nor influences their opinions.

Warren: Despite this lack of recognition, public interest in the food industry has increased dramatically over the past five years, with books, activist Web sites, magazine articles, and documentary films about how our food is produced. But as you've noted, little of that work, as excellent as it is, brings a spotlight to bear on the conflicts of interest between universities and the food-production complex. Why not?

Nestle: Most food advocates have no idea what kind of teaching or sponsorship occurs in colleges of agriculture, nutrition departments, or science departments focused on biotechnology. Aside from their role in teaching undergraduates, universities are perceived by the public as the proverbial ivory towers, immune to societal realities. Agricultural production and training are remote from the experience of most city dwellers. Proponents of sustainable and organic production systems have a difficult time at large, land-grant agricultural universities, but the public rarely hears about their problems.

The travails of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State leap to mind as an example. I once heard a former dean of the agriculture school there talk about how Iowa State ought to be leading the country in sustainable farming practices. …