Top public nutrition adviser faces criticism after receiving money from chocolate industry

©iStock

A spate of recent reports have accused a top member of Scotland’s food standards agency of bias after revealing her financial ties to a major chocolate firm - is the junk food industry meddling with objective scientific research?

Carrie Ruxton, who regularly contributes comments and opinion to FoodNavigator, has come under fire recently over her alleged ties to chocolate manufacturer Ferrero.

A member of Food Standards Scotland (FSS), Dr. Ruxton is one of the UK’s top nutritionists, appearing regularly on television and working with a range of public health bodies including the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Reports last week questioned the former Conservative Party candidate’s consultancy work for Ferrero. Ruxton has contributed research and advice to Ferrero's corporate social responsibility programme since 2014. 

Food journalist Joanna Blythman called the revelation “simply unacceptable” and accused Dr. Ruxton of unsuccessfully attempting to downplay the very real damage that sugar does to public health”. Blythman said she was unfit to sit on FSS and offer nutritional advice to the public.


 Ruxton released the following response, defending her position at FSS and the breadth of her experience in the industry:

“My long-term and broad experience of the food industry – working with nearly 100 different companies and trade bodies since 2004 – as well as my track record in the public sector writing obesity strategies and audits, have given me the knowledge to serve effectively on the Food Standards Scotland Board since April 2015 […] My work does not involve the promotion of dietary messages that conflict with those of Food Standards Scotland. Up until now, no-one has expressed any concerns about this work and the Chairman of Food Standards Scotland has been aware of my freelance activities since appointing me."

She also defended her record of publishing quarterly declarations of interest, saying it goes “well beyond the minimum required by listing the types of work that I carry out for clients”.

Ruxton says her connection to the industry has brought companies and consumer groups together to discuss reformulation, advertising and ingredient issues for the better.

She went on to dismiss allegations, published in The Times, that she opposed the UK's sugar tax – to be implemented in 2018 – saying that doubts she held previously over the practical effectiveness of such measures have been resolved by evidence from Public Health England and details of the legislation itself.

Even so, other researchers such Dr. Simon Capewell - professor of clinical epidemiology at the University of Liverpool, told The Times that Ruxton's consultancy work amounted to a “major conflict of interest” rendering her position at FSS “untenable”.  

Sugar coated science

Dr. Simon Campbell, professor of public health and policy, voiced concerns over a long history of corporate sponsorship in scientific research; major tobacco firms were infamously found to have funded and manipulated research on the health effects of smoking, and last year documents were uncovered exposing the sugar industry's efforts to downplay the dangers of sucrose in a similar manner. 

In the latter case, the findings show the sugar industry successfully paid university research departments to produce results that would look favourably on sugar's role in the diet and to shift blame for diseases such as coronary heart disease onto fats. 

Campbell thus argued in a report last year that no industry funding of scientific research should be accepted, saying it would ultimately minimise public policy and legal liability. 

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Comments (3)

Michael J. McFadden - 25 Apr 2017 | 02:08

Big Chocolate: After Our Children???

Note the title of my comment. That's the sort of thing you can expect to get hit with. . Ten years ago I worked for several months with a fellow Free Choice activist on a research study exposing the fraud behind the claim that smoking bans stopped nonsmokers from having heart attacks. Our research was well done and TobaccoScam could find nothing substantive to criticize. So they slammed us by pointing out that my co-resarcher, 20 years earlier, had worked as a soda flavoring chemist for 7-Up Soda Company. . How did that tie in? Simple: At one point in its history, the 7-Up company was bought and then sold by RJR. My friend had NEVER worked on anything to do with tobacco -- but our work was slammed by Tobacco Scam as having been done by "A Tobacco Company Researcher." . Meanwhile the myriad of researcher wallowing in the average of $500 million dollars a year handed out through MSA "Tobacco Control" funding for projects aimed at promoting such things as smoking bans get a free ride with nary a blink at their financial ties and incentives. . Michael J. McFadden

25-Apr-2017 at 14:08 GMT

Alice - 25 Apr 2017 | 10:53

A question of fact...

Bias is one likely consequence of an extant conflict of interest, and such a conflict is a question of fact, not opinion. Where regulators have economic ties with those they regulate, the conflict of interest is undeniable. Attempting to support this position by claiming some special expertise, whether real or imagined, evades the central fact that bias is a likely outcome of such relationships.

25-Apr-2017 at 10:53 GMT
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