After a storm of protest in the blogosphere, an internationally respected science blogging network has canned plans for a PepsiCo-sponsored blog featuring “innovations in science, nutrition and health policy”.

Seed Media, a New York-based company that runs ScienceBlogs, has announced the end of Food Frontiers, a blog that was to have been written by PepsiCo scientists or their invited contributors without being clearly signposted as advertorial. It had been billed as looking at “the role the food industry plays in health issues, and how industry research into chemistry, physiology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, medicine, and nutrition can improve health outcomes around the world”.

Many contributors to ScienceBlogs, which reaches millions of readers and syndicates content to the New York Times and National Geographic, had attacked the deal for damaging their own credibility, and some had resigned. Seed Media spokesman Adam Bly said yesterday:

“We apologise for what some of you viewed as a violation of your immense trust in ScienceBlogs. Although we (and many of you) believe strongly in the need to engage industry in pursuit of science-driven social change, this was clearly not the right way.”

Until this backdown, Seed Media argued the unpredictable nature of online advertising had forced the company into experimenting with sponsored blogs and marketing long-term sponsorship contracts instead of sporadic advertising contracts.

But the fracas, inevitably dubbed ‘PepsiGate’, has not only focused attention on the financial constraints and ethics of new media, as pointed out by John Rennie, a former editor-in-chief of Scientific American. It also raises questions for public health advocates, including how and whether they should engage with food giants that have identified obesity concerns as a threat to their bottom line, and are working hard to reposition themselves as the friends of public health.

Concerns have recently been raised in the US, for example, about a major health charity and funder of childhood obesity prevention programs, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, giving space to PepsiCo in its annual report card on obesity. A public health lawyer, Michele Simon, wrote at her blog Appetite4Profit: “If we can’t even read a major public health report on obesity data and policy solutions without running into a PR statement by Big Food, then no place is safe.”

Denmark may have just announced increased taxes for softdrinks, icecream, and sweets, but public health advocates have had previous few wins in the fight for a healthier food supply. This New York Times story investigates why plans for a ‘soda tax’ for New York have gone down the gurgler. One part of the explanation: the American Beverage Association spent $9.4 million in the first four months of the year to oppose it.

Media companies and public health advocates alike need to be very clear about whose bottom line will benefit from their engagement with powerful companies like PepsiCo. In this case, it is the credibility and brand of ScienceBlogs that have been damaged.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey