The BNF is a key independent charity that has influence on food policy in the UK and is often used by the government for advice and to publish web sites and other information to the public. It also has strong links to the food industry and there have been complaints that its stated aims of being objective and scientific are undermined by these connections.
The Independent published a version of the BMJ story as well.
Update: Thanks to The Gym Monkey for this list of BBC pages quoting the BNF.
A couple of people have been in touch with extra information following publication. One that intrigued me highlighted the role of a company called Fallon Currie Consulting. They are fronted by Ailbhe Fallon who is speaking at a conference on sweeteners organised by the BNF. The conference aims to "separate fact from fiction" and has a generous industry presence
Other speakers include Prof Tom Sanders, whose has done a lot of research for Tate & Lyle, and Prof Nick Finer. You can see Prof Finer talking on this video about aspartame and sweeteners. It's on a website called the Aspartame Information Service. A Whosis search shows that it was set up by Fallon Currie for the makers of this sweetener, Ajinomoto. You can contact the information service via a post box whose postcode is SW1E 5WQ. Fallon Currie's head office is at SW1E 5DD.
Needless to say both Ajinomoto and Tate & Lyle fund the British Nutrition Foundation. While the Foundation's web site and and annual reports acknowledge their links and fairly chart their work, Fallon Currie's online presence remains curiously opaque.
They seem to do independent-looking web sites for food industries well, though. Take the International Glutamate Information Service - another Fallon Currie creation but this time on behalf of MSG industry.
I've heard no comment from either the BNF or any of its supporters about these articles in the Independent and the BMJ but was warned today by one researcher familiar with this area: "Brace yourself for a shoal of letters from top profs saying the BNF is AOK and that good understanding with industry is vital bla bla."
I do think it fair, though, to include a lengthy explanation about the work of that BNF that I was sent by Sara Stanner, its science programme manager. For reasons of space this could not be included in full in the articles.Q: In almost all its publicity the foundation makes clear its commitment to objective, science-based research. This independence is obviously important to the foundation.
I'd be interested in your views on how the BNF maintains its independence despite its industry funding. Does the foundation not come under pressure from donors to concentrate on certain areas or ignore other ones? Do you think that having such close links with industry (in terms of the amount of money food manufacturers give you and the number of staff and trustees who work or have worked for the private sector) damages your credibility as an independent charity?
Q: Do you think that these industry links are adequately signposted so people are aware of them? By people I mean anyone who interacts with the foundation whether in government, NGOs, academics, teachers, consumers etc. For instance, it is extremely rare in press reports where the foundation may talk about a particular company for the report to mention that that firm is a member of the foundation. Of course, that might be an oversight on behalf of the writer, but it does seem to be a common oversight. The membership list is published on your web site but do you feel there is proper disclosure on other material you publish to demonstrate possible conflicts of interest?
A: We are certain that if we were viewed as unable to provide advice that is authoritative and independent of our funding sources, then we would not attract donations from industry or enjoy the rich collaboration and support we receive from the nutrition, academic and education communities.
BNF provides a forum for people and organisations who share an interest in nutrition science to come together to encourage enhanced standards in food provision. Our members tell us that they appreciate access to a 'sounding board' which provides an honest, informed, no frills opinion of what they are doing or proposing to do.
Certainly, if we feel their plans are misguided, we tell them and we regularly challenge their thinking and help them to identify ways to reformulate in line with best practice, e.g. portion size, energy density, nutrient composition. We do this in a way that places our advice in the context of the available scientific evidence, food law and food policy. But the scientific evidence base is the most important driver of the advice we provide. We work in a similar way, in fact, with government officials and their departments (in the work they commission us to do, we do not lobby) and in our responses to consultations.
As you will have seen the Foundation attracts funding (won in open competition) from a variety of sources, including contracts with the European Commission, national government departments and agencies; a wide range of food producers and manufacturers, retailers and food service companies; grant providing bodies, trusts and other charities. We obtain no funding by right. The donations we receive from food and drink companies are used at ‘arms length’ and in a generic sense to supplement the funding we secure from the other sources referred to above (including contracts in which we are collaborating with university departments across Europe) to deliver a free information service to health professionals, journalists, teachers and indeed the general public (you will have seen our two websites www.nutrition.org.uk and www.foodafactoflife.org.uk). You should also look at our recent podcasts (http://www.foodafactoflife.org.uk/Search.aspx?search=podcast), especially episode 5 of the Eatwell plate series on foods high in fat, sugar and salt, and the most recent one on healthy eating. We interact with many sectors, including government and our peers in academia, education and the health professions, and believe that this enriches the information and resources we provide.
Our ability to protect our independence is strengthened by this diversity in funding and centres on our strong governance. This governance (comprising principally our Board of Trustees and Council) is organised to secure our independence and to ensure we meet our charitable objectives. It is broad based but heavily weighted towards the academic community and involves many leading high ranking experts in nutrition and health, education and communications, of international standing, who receive no payment and generously give up their time to ensure that the Foundation delivers messages based on the accurate interpretation of nutrition science. We also have a Royal patron.
The work that both our education and science teams produces is testament to our ability to produce evidence-based information without pressure from our supporters, who recognise that our independence is our most valued asset. This work is guided by education committees representing the four constituent countries of the UK and various advisory committees comprising scientists with expertise in human nutrition. Strange as it may seem we are not pressurised, commercially or politically, to be selective in the repertoire of nutrition topics we address, as will be evident from our websites and the topics we cover in our publications and podcasts. A fundamental principle of our work is that we do not endorse or in any way promote individual products or companies; this is made clear at the outset and the Foundation reserves the right to withdraw membership. All applications for membership are scrutinised by our Trustees in a structured manner approved by our Council and all members are required by signature to abide by our objects and values in their interactions with us.
Incidentally, you refer to ‘the number of staff and trustees who work or have worked for the private sector’, suggesting that this is a dominant theme in the expertise we have available to us and that such experience is detrimental to good judgement. A number of our nutrition scientists undertook work experience placements with food companies during their degrees (which you will find is a common practice in human nutrition degrees and these graduates are usually in high demand as these placements typically go to talented students and they also develop a level of maturity from this experience which is attractive to employers), and another was employed by a trade association many years ago.
Our view is that we are fortunate in attracting scientific staff of a very high calibre from all walks of human nutrition, which enriches the work we do and ensures we are able to provide a mature and balanced view on nutrition issues. You also mention our Trustees - to ensure diversity in the expertise available among our Trustees, our Articles of Association that not more than two of our Trustees (out of a total of 12) can be Industrial Governors (i.e. from the food industry). Details are provided in our Annual Report.
A: Picking up on your example, we base our communications about diet and nutrition on generic foods and food groups. We would not give any comment on specific brands either in our resources or to the media (I am not sure which press reports you are referring to). If we engage in any piece of project work that involves support from one of our member companies (or any other industry link), we always clearly acknowledge this (for example, we thank anyone who has given us support towards a conference during the event and in all related literature and we include a conflict of interest statement in any paper we write that has received financial support or even been encouraged as a topic for us to review by one of our member companies).
We have clear statements about our funding on both of our websites and in our Annual Reports, as well as a list of all of the companies that have provided us with any financial support during the year. You make an interesting point though and we shall give consideration to this, as part of our on-going review of our policies. But in our experience, most people that we talk to are aware that we get funding from different sources, including industry and government.
As I am sure you will realise from exploring our website and activities, we are passionate about what we do and the role we believe we have in supporting and guiding consumers (including children) to improve the dietary choices they make, through the use of nutrition science encouraging and supporting the food industry to improve nutrition standards for the public good, and also providing tools and resources that teachers and health professionals can use in their work. We are proud of our track record of ‘telling it how it is’.