Why Is the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Releasing Politically-charged Data Ahead of Peer Review?

When I was asked yesterday by POLITICO to comment on a press release from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation celebrating the food industry's alleged reduction in calories, I thought, Oh, those data we've been waiting for are finally published. But I was wrong. As I reported last June, a collection of food companies calling themselves the "Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation" jumped the gun with a self-congratulatory release claiming to have made good on its 2010 "pledge" with the first lady's Let's Move campaign to reduce the number of calories in the food supply by 1.5 trillion.

Six months later, the data are still unpublished. Instead, the only information the media had to go on was the release with a promise of future publication. As Marion Nestle told POLITICO, "I can't understand why RWJ would send out a press release without having data to back it up." The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is a primary backer of the Partnership for a Healthier America (the nonprofit arm of Let's Move) is also funding the scientific review of industry's pledge. That analysis is being conducted by researcher Barry Popkin at the University of North Carolina. I have no doubt his research will be sound, but it's irresponsible for the funder to release data before the peer review process is complete. Academic research articles provide important details such as caveats and limitations, not to mention explanations that may have nothing to do with industry's actions (such as the recession resulting in lower sales). On the other hand, the press release was all glowing, and the media dutifully reported the happy news.

Meanwhile, in a blog post (loftily titled, "Through Commitment with the Partnership for a Healthier America, Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation Members Exceed Their Calorie Reduction Goal By 400%"), Let's Move's Executive Director Sam Kass said he was "thrilled" with the results. Of course he is. Because when Michelle Obama stands side by side with the likes of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, the White House needs positive results to back up its let's-work-with-industry game plan.

Wherever the pressures were coming from, a foundation as influential as Robert Wood Johnson, one that prides itself on "research and evaluation" and who claims that "our work is published in peer-reviewed journals" should live up to its own promises. While it's predictable that the food industry would release self-serving data without credible backing, we should expect more from a leading foundation. When the results are finally published, then let's take a closer look.