A new report by a public health advocate criticizes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a trade group presenting some 74,000 dietitians, for allowing corporate sponsorships of its organization.
The report, by Michele Simon, a lawyer who specializes in legal issues involving the food industry, raises questions about the role big food companies play in the continuing education of the nation's nutrition experts and the ability of the organization to challenge the industry on matters of health and nutrition.
Among her findings were that the number of food companies and trade groups that are paid sponsors of the academy more than tripled between 2001 and 2011 — to 38, from 10 — and that roughly 23 percent of about 300 speakers at its annual meeting had undisclosed financial ties to the food industry.
Ryan O'Malley, a spokesman for the Academy, said the organization could not comment without seeing the report.
ConAgra, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, Kellogg's, General Mills, Aramark, Mars and the National Dairy Council are among the organization's major sponsors.
Some sponsors become an "Academy Partner," which entitles them to educate nutrition professionals about the health benefits of their products, co-sponsor events and conduct educational sessions at annual meetings. They also have the right to use the academy's logo in marketing campaigns.
Simon, author of "Appetite for Profit: How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and How to Fight Back," said she decided to study the relationship between the food industry and the academy after hearing complaints from dietitians.
Questions about corporate influence have bedeviled the organization for years. In 2007, it revamped its corporate sponsorship program to address concerns among its members.
In its 2011 annual report, the latest available, the academy said corporate sponsorships accounted for $1.85 million, or about 5 percent of its roughly $34 million in revenue, down from 9 percent in each of the previous two years. Whether that figure accounts for all of its corporate and trade group support is unclear.
Margo Wootan, an academy member who is director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said leadership and other changes the organization had made had helped curb the influence of companies.
"Ten years ago, the academy was really very closely tied to the food and beverage industry," Wootan said. "But they really have cleaned up their act."
The academy is conducting a survey among some of its members to determine their opinions about corporate sponsorship. In a survey of 2,968 members two years ago, 80 percent of the respondents said that the organization was endorsing its corporate sponsors by allowing the sponsorships.