Is the Dietitians Association of Australia in the Pocket of Big Food?

New Report from Eat Drink Politics Exposes Conflicts of Interest in Australian Dietitians Group

coverJust as most western nations do, Australia suffers significantly from diet-related chronic diseases. Heart disease is the leading cause of death, killing one Australian every 12 minutes. Diabetes is also a serious health concern, with rising rates in recent years, according to the government.

The 2013 report, “And Now a Word from Our Sponsors,” also from Eat Drink Politics, found that the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in the United States has a serious credibility problem due to its myriad conflicts with the junk food industry. Sadly, a very similar situation exists within Australia’s dietetic profession, led by the Dietitians Association of Australia. Among the most troubling findings of the new report from Eat Drink Politics:

  • Corporate sponsors of DAA include Meat and Livestock Australia, Nestlé, Unilever, Dairy Australia, and the Egg Nutrition Council
  • Meat and Livestock Australia is a sponsor of DAA’s “Australia Healthy Weight Week”
  • Nestlé Nutrition Institute funds the DAA “Emerging Researcher Award”
  • DAA was a partner in the “Nestlé Choose Wellness Roadshow”
  • McDonald’s and the Australian Heart Foundation promoted free “Deli Choices Wraps” at DAA’s annual meeting
  • DAA “In the Spotlight” dietitians include the director of communications and public affairs at Kellogg’s and the nutrition manager for PepsiCo Australia* (see note below)
  • DAA spokesperson Alan Barclay published disputed data claiming lower sugar consumption during rising obesity rates (“the Australian Paradox”) and was paid by Coca-Cola to present his research
  •  DAA Director Leigh Reeve (board member) is also the director of the Australian Breakfast Cereal Forum of the Australian Food and Grocers Council
  • DAA’s policy to not endorse specific products is violated on the organization’s own Pinterest pages, which frequently display recipes from corporate sponsors with branded products
  • A dietitian was deemed “not eligible” for her earned credential by DAA, allegedly for speaking out against these sorts of conflicts of interest.*

Lucy Taylor is a dietitian specializing in plant-based diets practicing in Melbourne. She is not happy with her chosen profession’s leadership:

As a dietitian, I feel like I’m forced to be a mouthpiece for a the food industry. I object to being fed masses of industry-funded ‘research updates’ with messages that I am supposed to work into my practice such as, eat red meat 3 times a week from Meat and Livestock Australia, or consume 3 servings of dairy per day from Dairy Australia. The worst is from the food companies themselves, like Coca Cola telling me how wonderful their calorie-controlled smaller cans are.

Melanie Voevodin is the dietitian whose name is being tarnished on the DAA website, she says because she dared to speak out. She plainly sees how such conflicts damage the entire profession:

Each individual dietitian bears the public scrutiny of the actions of the DAA and their continued financial relationships with the food industry and their front groups despite the evidence of a conflict of interest. That conflict exists whether real or perceived, whether denied, acknowledged or managed. As long as DAA maintains these financial relationships, every individual dietitian will bear the public scrutiny. It is therefore reasonable to suggest DAA is now the single greatest barrier to the credibility of the profession.

What is the role of the Dietitians Association of Australia—the nation’s largest organization of nutrition professionals—in preventing or at least stemming the tide of diet-related health problems? It’s high time for this organization to look inward. The health of all Australians depends upon the independence of the nutrition profession and its leadership’s ability to be the nutrition leaders they claim to be, free from sponsorship money.

In the aftermath of my report on the U.S. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a group of RDs formed “Dietitians for Professional Integrity” to protest AND’s sponsorship conflicts, and continues to maintain a Facebook page with 11,000 likes. Perhaps it’s time for an international coalition to protest professional conflicts in Australia and globally.

Download the full report here.

*Corrections: The report mistakenly refers to these two dietitians as DAA spokespeople when instead DAA features them on its website under “In the Spotlight“. I have also reworded parts of this post to reflect DAA’s position regarding Melanie Voevodin.

Update: DAA’s CEO Claire Hewat wrote this letter in response. Other than the above correction, I stand by the report. The letter ignores the main critique: that conflicted sponsorships tarnish the profession and harm public health.

7 Responses to “Is the Dietitians Association of Australia in the Pocket of Big Food?”

  1. Well this article seems highly inaccurate. I am a dietitian with membership to the DAA and I am not “forced” to say anything, nor do I have affiliations with big food- or another company for that matter.

    Keep in mind that weight loss treatment is one of the many roles dietitians do, to slag an entire profession because you have limited understanding on how the DAA works is not a fair reflection of what we do.

    It would also help that you interview a non bias person. An X dietitian who has chosen to leave due to a formal complaint made against them by a fellow college is of course going to speak negatively about the DAA.

    Seems to me like your interviewing the wrong people to get your information.

    Should anyone want a more balanced idea on how the DAA work I suggest you read the letter or response in the update section of this article.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I agree that the article was very poorly written and heavily bias – The premise is fair, but to address the issue so superficialy has created more division. Controversy is great from a health journalists perspective but there is so much more to this than just the basic pinciple of what the author has written about. I am a member of DAA also and major reservations with corporate sponsorship, and I think that Lucy should reach out to other members as there are many of us who feel the same and we are under absolutely no obligation to speak for the industry. Any peak body would be able to comment on conflict of interests in that sometimes there is minimal distinction from the public’s perspective between an actual COI as opposed to a perceived one. Melanie has argued this point previously. It doesn’t necessarily matter to the public whether we are actually influenced in daily practice – Gabrielle, you know that we are not all influenced by industry – but nevertheless in the public and social media worlds, we don’t have the trust of a at least some of the population. They believe that we are. That is what perceived COI does.

    • michele says:

      just curious, why are you posting this anonymously?

      • Anonymous says:

        Michele, you’re a lawyer. I’m sure you know the answer to that question. The fact that people don’t want to enter into debate online does not mean they don’t stand for anything. I find this kind of debate in comments ends in ugly ways and I am not willing too look petty and poorly reasoned because I am contained to explains myself in a box on a blog. It’s almost pointless because we read the same arguments back and forth over and over again. There is no argument that there is a perceived COI here – wherever there are financial ties there is a perceived COI and DAA have never denied that, rather explaining their position. I don’t agree and I’m not arguing for corporate ties. But what this article has done is project the impression that all dietitians are under pressure to speak for industry and this absolutely not the case. Lucy may feel that way and I once did too, but with more years in the field comes more perspective and Lucy should feel free to make the decision not to speak for industry. Many of us do. We don’t attend PD, we throw material straight into the bin. Most importantly, we voice our concerns internally and advocate for change. Like I said, I agree with the premise of your article, but explaining more about who DAA actually represents and what is expected of members, as well as the fact that not all dietitians Have to be members at all, would have made for a higher quality article.

      • Anonymous says:

        Basically what I’m saying is that I consider myself to be an ethical practitioner and this article has just dropped me further in the shit as far as the public is concerned.

        • michele says:

          Got it. Sorry you feel that way, but I am just the messenger here. For my much longer report on the US group, I went to great pains to explain there are many wonderful RDs who do not agree with their leadership. It seemed obvious to me with this report that I was complaining about the leadership of your profession, and not individual practitioners like yourself. I am sorry for not making that more clear.

  3. Robert says:

    Once an organization begins to rely on corporate sponsorship, they have a relationship with that corporation. If the donations are significant to the organization, it’s pretty hard to imagine that the funding does not affect policy to some extent.

    If nothing else, an effort should be made to decline donations from any corporate entity whose business model is in conflict with the goals of any organization.

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