Can nutrition experts be independent if they get $25,000 per annum from Nestle?
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Times of India Rema Nagarajan, TNN | Apr 19, 2014, 10.00AM IST
NEW DELHI: The question of conflict of interest among academics who serve on various boards or councils of private corporations is in focus yet again with Nestle admitting that it does offer to pay members of its Creating Shared Value (CSV) Council $25,000 per annum. This has also raised question about the effectiveness of the conflict of interest policy of the medical journal Lancet, given that two of the lead authors of its series on Maternal and Child Nutrition were members of Nestle's Creating Shared Value Advisory Committee.
The two lead authors of the Lancet series who are also members of Nestle's CSV council are Dr Robert E Black of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Dr Venkatesh Mannar, former president of Micronutrient Initiative. Neither Prof Black nor Dr Mannar responded to emails asking if they accepted remuneration given by Nestle or opted not to take it.
"We have asked the Lancet to review the effectiveness of its conflicts of interest policy, given that two lead authors of its series on Maternal and Child Nutrition, published in June 2013, declared that they are members of Nestle's Creating Shared Value Advisory Committee. Such advisory roles could, depending on the circumstance, result in exclusion from European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) working groups," said statement from the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN)."
Nestle's Public Affairs Manager, Marie Chantal Messier in response to a letter from Mike Brady of Baby Milk Action said that Nestle's CSV council charter stipulated that "if so desired, Council members may receive compensation for time spent devoted to the Council at a rate of CHF 25,000 per annum, assuming participation in a minimum of one meeting per year". However, Messier's letter added that some council members donated their fee to a deserving organization of their choice, and others opted to forgo the fee. Baby Milk Action is a non-profit which works within a global network to strengthen independent, transparent and effective controls on the marketing of the baby feeding industry.
Earlier, the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) had written to Janet Voute, Nestle's global head of public affairs, asking if members of the CSV council received a fee, honorarium or financial or other compensation of any kind from Nestle. Voute replied reiterating that CSV council members did not receive a salary from Nestle. But she did not respond to repeated requests to clarify if they received any fee, honorarium or any financial compensation, quite different from a salary.
IBFAN has expressed concern over the conflict of interest among lead authors of the Lancet child survival series as it has an important influence on health policies. "While the 2013 Lancet series still recognizes breast feeding's importance, there is now much more emphasis on micronutrient based foods and supplements," stated IBFAN adding that eight of the ten interventions recommended interventions in the series involved products of some kind. In the series, the authors also called on the private sector to generate evidence about the positive and negative effects of private sector and market-led approaches to nutrition.
It has been a matter of great concern among public health activists who work on child health and nutrition that the issue of malnutrition was being converted into a marketing opportunity to be addressed through products that big corporations could sell as the answer, instead of being seen as a basic lack of access to food caused by structural inequities in food distribution. When the editor of Lancet Richard Horton tweeted asking how to resist Big Food corporations, Anthony Costello professor of International Child Health and Director of the University College London Institute for Global Health has responded saying that "maybe one way to resist big food is not to have Nestle's advisory board directing the Lancet series.