Monday, 2 October 2017

Another Big Food conspiracy theory

A few weeks ago I quoted a comment from Virginia Berridge about the 'public health' lobby's selective use of e-mails and memos to rewrite history...

The enthusiasm for online industry archives is an interesting phenomenon. We are seeing a new type of family history, a Whig history revived and a rediscovery of 'the document' whose main role is to play to the policy objectives of the anti-tobacco field.  

There has been a lot of this recently and it goes beyond tobacco. Last year, Stanton Glantz and his UCSF colleagues picked up an obscure, 50 year old evidence review and presented it as the central document proving that 'the sugar industry has distorted health science for more than 50 years'. More recently, we have seen Glantz (again) cherry-pick a tiny handful of documents to claim that the tobacco industry was somehow responsible for nicotine patches being ineffective. Mark Petticrew did a similarly shady job of riffling through some public documents from the alcohol industry last month, with a view to asserting that the booze industry denies the link between drinking and cancer.

Such claims are daft on their face and collapse under closer inspection, but they garner the desired headlines and that seems to their purpose.

I missed this laughable effort about the food industry when it was published a couple of weeks ago but it has subsequently come to my attention thanks to an excellent fisking by Katherine Rich (it's a shame there are not more people in industry prepared to publish forthright and readable critiques like her's) and this follow-up post by Hank Campbell.

The article was written by a familiar set of food cranks, such as Boyd Swinburn and Gary Ruskin, who think that the only people the media should listen to is themselves. They conclude:

The results provide direct evidence that senior leaders in the food industry advocate for a deliberate and co-ordinated approach to influencing scientific evidence and expert opinion. The paper reveals industry strategies to use external organisations, including scientific bodies and medical associations, as tools to overcome the global scientific and regulatory challenges they face.

Incredibly, the sole source for these sweeping statements is a single e-mail written by one British scientist, Dr Michael Knowles, who had once worked for DEFRA and Coca-Cola. He retired in 2013. The e-mail was written in 2015. I reproduce it in full below.

For context, IFIC is the International Food Information Council, an industry-funded body. When the e-mail was written, IFIC had held a teleconference with the media to discuss new recommendations from US Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee. IFIC were critical of the committee for getting involved with policy when its job is to look at science and for demonising certain food groups, particularly red meat. It also questioned the committee's suggestion that sugar should not be replaced with artificial sweeteners.

This is what Knowles said:

There's not much to the e-mail, is there? Knowles is suggesting that there might be some biased people in the advisory committee - a racing certainty when 'public health' policy is at stake - and that scientists who disagree should make sure that they are heard. So what?

As Rich says, this is not exactly Watergate and yet the article's authors conclude that...

The tactics displayed by these food industry leaders to influence the scientific evidence base and global debate in relation to nutrition and food represent a substantial risk to efforts to address NCDs globally. The public health and medical community need to be aware that they are viewed as tools through which food companies can overcome threats to their profits... 

Importantly, companies need to be held to account, through the media and the public health community, if found to be undermining the public’s health using the tactics described here.

Who are these 'food industry leaders'? They are one bloke who retired four years ago writing to a bloke who hadn't worked in the food industry for fifteen years.

What are the 'tactics'? Essentially, a retired scientist is suggesting that scientists challenge other scientists when they believe them to be mistaken.

This is pitiful stuff. I recommend you read Rich's article to see how an elaborate conspiracy theory was built on such feeble foundations. In particular, see how the authors use selective quoting, misrepresentation and self-citation to make claims that are insupportable.

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