The Obesity Society, Outreach, and Fairness Overreach

Fat, Handicapped Clown

Is there such a thing as too much fairness? Maybe the Obesity Society has a case of it, on display at its annual meeting which is coming right up, October 1-5, in Orlando, Florida. The Obesity Society self-identifies as THE leading scientific society dedicated to the study of obesity. It encourages research on the causes and treatment of obesity. It informs the medical community and the public about new advances in the field.

Its “About Us” page says,

The Obesity Society’s Annual Scientific Meeting is the largest conference in North America focusing on obesity research, prevention, treatment, and management. Scientists, clinicians, industry leaders and policy shapers from around the world attend the conference to hear the most renowned leaders in the obesity field present cutting-edge research.

Here is a strange thing. The Obesity Society consistently rejects suggestions that its conferences should include talks on the concept of food addiction, especially in regard to its ruination of the lives of children. The Obesity Society doesn’t want to hear about it. On the other hand, the organization has arranged to lend plenty of ears to advocates for the corporations whose products are so dangerous. All they have to do is pay.

Wait, what? Aren’t the corporate interests being heard by lots and lots of ears and seen by lots of eyes already, on every television and radio, in movies, in every magazine, on every billboard, and online? Don’t they buy billions of dollars worth of ears already, with their advertising budget of, for instance, $4.2 billion in 2009? (That number came from Yale University’s Rudd Center.)

Well, at the Obesity Society’s get-together, the food industry is buying some more ears. No “new advance in the field” here. No cutting-edge research. Just a routine commercial transaction so the other side can be heard from. All the fairness money can buy. Here’s how it’s done.

In addition to the official conference, there are pre-conference sessions. Apparently, a spot in the lineup can be bought (PDF) for $7,500.00, which helps to support the Obesity Society in its ability to hold conferences. A sponsoring corporation is welcome to take part in this opportunity to “strengthen your existing relationships, increase your product awareness and generate new sales leads.”

The deal gets even sweeter, as described on the “Exhibitors and Sponsors” page:

The Obesity Society is pleased to offer a new service to our Corporate Symposia Sponsors. We now have the ability to record your symposium, convert it to an enduring material format, and host it on the Internet for all to view.

One such program was announced by email, titled “Food Industry Outreach: Strategies the Food Industry Is Using to Address Obesity.” Now, “outreach,” as any church knows, is a word that means “convince them to join us.” Outreach is not a bad thing, in and of itself. But as a prelude to the Obesity Society annual conference?

This spin-doctoring presentation, which the announcement described as a Food Industry Forum that appears on the agenda for the first time, is scheduled as Session 4 in the preliminary bouts. While not officially part of the conference, it is advertised as free and educational, and described as…

… highlighting research being done within that industry to help promote heathy weight and healthy eating habits. Our guest speakers, Dr. Mark Andon, Dr. Douglas Balentine, and Dr. Richard Black, are leading scientists in the field of human nutrition–all working to tackle the issues of obesity from within the food industry.

From within the food industry, indeed. Dr. Andon is vice president over at ConAgra Foods. His credentials are impressive and he has done extensive human nutrition consulting “for both the federal government and private industry.”

Dr. Balentine is director of nutrition science at Unilever North America, and belongs to the Institute of Food Technologists. He is also a member of the American Dietetics Association (which, by the way, is changing its name to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics). This is the outfit that got in trouble in 2006 for promoting ice cream, and coincidentally, accepting financial help from a company that makes ice cream.

Black is an Obesity Society member who has worked for Nestle and Kellogg and is now vice president of nutrition for Kraft Foods Global — in other words, a big gun with a versatile skill set:

… responsible for leading corporate-wide nutrition programs: developing strategies, guidelines, and portfolio improvement opportunities; and providing overall accountability for nutrition research, nutrition communications, and nutrition business applications.

Letting these guys be on the program is all very tolerant, but even if the “outreach” is just an unofficial, pre-program event, is it appropriate fare for the Obesity Society? A crew of food industry apologists, patting themselves on the back, schooling the Obesity Society on such concepts as “energy density” (aka sugar and fat) in their products, as well as the supremacy of market research. And they also preach the absolute dictatorship of a thing called “consumer realities.”

Question: If “consumer realities” are supposed to be our society’s number one priority, then why not decriminalize cocaine tomorrow? Here, we run up against the fact that consumer realities do not always present a valid argument. Question: Should Drs. Andon, Balentine, and Black be ashamed of themselves for using this argument when speaking before a gathering of their fellow health professionals?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “General Information,” Obesity.org
Source: “About Us,” Obesity.org
Source: “Addiction to Highly Pleasurable Food as a Cause of the Childhood Obesity Epidemic: A Qualitative Internet Study,” Eating Disorders, 06/21/11
Source: “Exhibitors and Sponsors,” Obesity.org
Image by joanna8555, used under its Creative Commons license.

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