In the report I recently released, (covered by the New York Times), "And Now a Word from Our Sponsors," I described the various ways the food industry influences the largest trade group of nutrition professionals -- the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics -- through corporate sponsorship. While other corporations, such as Coca-Cola, play a more prominent role by being an "Academy Partner," McDonald's engaged in its trademark health-washing at the Academy's annual meeting last fall.
To visit the company's booth at the event's expo hall, you would never know that McDonald's was the nation's leading fast food corporation. While several other companies (such as Kellogg) tried to get registered dietitians (RDs) to come to their booths for a free breakfast, McDonald's was the most successful with this strategy. But they weren't serving up the company's common breakfast items like the Egg McMuffin or Sausage Biscuit. Rather, to visit the McDonald's booth, you'd think the fast-food giant only sold oatmeal and smoothies. As I approached, a McDonald's rep offered me some oatmeal, insisting that I just try it. (I declined, explaining that I make my own at home; I later learned that default version of McDonald's oatmeal contains a whopping 32 grams of sugar.)
I asked a few RDs why they were there and they just said they were hungry. Fair enough, but it was clear that McDonald's had succeeded in positioning itself as a purveyor of healthy food while feeding RDs breakfast. In addition, most of the banners at the McDonald's booth showed images of healthy foods like smoothies, never mind the McRib or Big Macs. (See photos.)
McDonald's also was spinning tall tales at an education session called "Making a Difference: Improving Nutrition at QSRs." (QSR stands for quick service restaurant, the industry's euphemism for fast food.) While numerous other sessions were listed in the program as officially sponsored, this one was not. Moderating the panel was Ilene Smith, an RD with Porter Novelli, a public relations firm with a long list of Big Food clients, including McDonald's.
The first panelist was a consultant to numerous fast-food chains who goes by "Dr Jo®" -- yes, she actually trademarked her name. The other was Cindy Goody, director of nutrition for McDonald's. Goody introduced the "McDonald's nutrition team" (most were wearing red jackets, like a sports team), including several RDs and chefs.
This session was a 90-minute infomercial for the fast-food giant. In fact, when I turned to an RD sitting next to me afterward, that's exactly what she called it. She told me she was disappointed because she came to the panel expecting substantive information about what chain restaurants were doing about nutrition. Instead, we saw slide after slide about how wonderful McDonald's is for posting calories on its menus (never mind how the company lobbied for decades against menu labeling) and for adding apple slices to Happy Meals. Goody touted McDonald's "commitment to children's well-being... Now parents feel better feeding their kids Happy Meals." But not a word about how the Happy Meals still contain hamburgers or fried chicken, and are marketed to young children. (Goody's slides from that presentation are available online.)
When it came time for questions and answers, I was the only one willing to challenge what we just heard. I asked Goody why McDonald's continued to market to children as young as age 2, despite calls from public health professionals and others to stop exploiting kids. She simply repeated the same PR line about alleged nutrition improvements, without addressing the ongoing problem of marketing to kids. I was cut off when I tried to ask a follow-up.
Later I had a troubling conversation with an RD friend about this session. As I began to tell her about it, she countered that McDonald's did not "have a session" at the event. I had to insist that I had witnessed it myself to convince her. This exchange demonstrated the problem with how the sessions are listed in the program. Because this particular panel did not say "Sponsored by McDonald's," this RD had no idea it was in fact a McDonald's-run session.
Which made me wonder, how did McDonald's get on the program in the first place, if it weren't an official sponsor like the other food companies? Did Cindy Goody (or someone else at McDonald's) actually submit an abstract to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and apply to be a speaker? According to the Academy submission guidelines, proposals are "reviewed based on their individual merit and their application to the Academy's strategic mission, vision and goals." But how could McDonald's PR spin possibly apply to the Academy's stated vision of "optimizing the nation's health through food and nutrition"?
I would expect McDonald's to push its public relations agenda at a nutrition conference, but shame on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for so readily offering up the forum in which to do so. You can read my full report (or the executive summary) on corporate sponsorship of the Academy, see photos of the expo, and read what former members are saying about why they left.