The Coca Cola Company recently announced it has formed a partnership with the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the organisation representing 67,000 food and nutrition professionals, mostly dietitians.

It’s a strange alliance, even allowing that the Coca-Cola company bottles water as well as soft drinks, because the ADA’s recent position paper on ecological sustainability specifically advised people to purchase foods with less packaging and drink filtered tap water rather than bottled water.

Closer to home, the Dietitians Association of Australia (DAA) has courted controversy among its members for the last few years by having McDonald’s exhibit at their annual conference. This year, DAA has slid further down the slippery slope of sponsorship, with trade exhibitors such as Coca-Cola, Pepsico and even the Pavlova Pantry. The spread of junk food companies may dilute the criticism directed at McDonald’s, but it’s likely to create problems between many dietitians and the organisation that represents them to the public.

Unholy alliances between the medical profession and pharmaceutical companies have had lots of publicity, thanks largely to the work of Australian journalist Ray Moynihan, both in Australia and internationally.

Companies court professionals to give themselves and their products credibility and also to silence potential criticism. Professions don’t like to bite the hand that feeds them.

Some professional associations, such as the Public Health Association, maintain their activities without sponsorship. Could they do more if they had more money? Probably, but associations who seek to develop their profile with larger, more expensive (and possibly worthy) projects, can easily rationalise their usual ethical stance. Sadly, this can make them irrelevant as a source of independent advice.

The late Roberto Goizueta, CEO of Coca-Cola, said that “business has one purpose, to make profits, period” (The Book of Leadership Wisdom: Classic Writings by Legendary Business Leaders.) These days, food companies are well aware that selling a healthy image equals profits.

McDonald’s showed how it’s done. To counter bad press and falling sales, they employed some well-intentioned dietitians to develop a few healthier choices. Launched with a fanfare of publicity, the public flocked back to McDonald’s. A few bought the healthier stuff, but the overall result was an increase in the sales of burgers and fries.

Professional associations are naïve to think they can influence companies. It can happen, but a downward ride is more likely. Quoting a marketing executive, in Food Politics, the US academic Professor Marian Nestle noted that when companies co-opt experts “…this activity requires a modicum of finesse; it must not be too blatant, for the experts themselves must not recognise they have lost their objectivity and freedom of action. At a minimum, a program of this kind reduces the threat that the leading experts will be available to testify or write against the interests of the regulated firms.”

Peter Fray

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