To be fair, this story was broken in the Sunday Times yesterday, which is where I read it, but I don’t have the paper with me, and as the Times website seems to have mysteriously disappeared, I’m having to quote from the Mail online. The facts seem to be the same. Susan Jebb [left], Head of Nutrition and Health Research at the Medical Research Council, and a senior adviser in the Government’s “battle against obesity” (how’s that going, then?) has been found to have pocketed thousands of pounds from the slimming industry. She has been paid to write articles and appear in promotional videos for the Rosemary Conley [right] fitness company. Now, you may not care that someone in such a lofty position on an influential Government-funded group takes money from a private company. But when that company stands to benefit from this influential individual’s findings, the lines between public and private blur – as they so often do – and in the case of official scientific and dietary advice, this strikes me as problematic.
You may remember the headlines that ran right across our national press in June, claiming (and here I quote from the Guardian’s cover story), “Today science is offering an authoritative and surprisingly positive endorsement: two studies from the Medical Research Council, led by one of Britain’s leading nutrition scientists, say that Weight Watchers really does work.” These studies were partly funded by Weight Watchers. Meanwhile, Jebb was also being paid for endorsements by Rosemary Conley. It all adds up to a scientific body advertising private companies, and harvesting headlines in the press for those companies in the process. The Guardian’s was unequivocal: WEIGHT WATCHERS DOES WORK, SAY SCIENTISTS. The other papers went with variations on this theme. Many people will not have even read down to the bit where the source of the studies’ funding came from. Many who did will not have minded. I mind.
Now, the issue here is not whether Weight Watchers does or doesn’t work. From what I have read, and heard from those who’ve used the system, it works for some, and not for others, as with many dieting techniques, and the weight generally goes straight back on once you stop doing it. I am not having a go at Weight Watchers – as I say, I know people who’ve joined and benefited, and the social aspects seem positive – but let us be in no doubt: you have to pay to join (around £18 a month, after introductory offers), and members are vigorously encouraged to buy Weight Watchers processed food products: cake mixes, potted desserts, readymeals, sauces, pizzas and “savoury snacks” which by their nature can’t be as good for you as eating whole foods, or as cheap. So is it right for the Government to endorse Weight Watchers and put out a sensational press release based on the abstracts for these studies? It was, understandably, gobbled up by the newspapers – a big deal for the company behind Weight Watchers (which was owned by Heinz between 1978 and 1999, who still manufacture chocolate brownies, frozen risotto and pizza with the Weight Watchers logo). Hey, it’s the kind of advertising you can’t buy.
So if Susan Jebb, the Government’s “authority on the best ways to get fit”, publicly praises fitness clubs that she’s receiving money from, personally, does that not undermine her authority, or at the very least muddy the waters? As head of the MRC’s Human Nutrition Research unit, a major part of Dr Jebb’s job involves advising the Government on obesity. How can she do so with a clear conscience when she still appears on Rosemary Conley’s internet channel or website endorsing her methods? “Health kicks that have stood the test of time, like Rosemary Conley’s, usually do so for a good reason – they work,” she writes on the website, one of Conley’s “health experts.” If she’s been paid to write this, what are we to make of it? Again, I’m not saying it does or doesn’t work, but like Weight Watchers, you can buy Rosemary Conley processed food off her website. I have never met a nutritionist who would advise anyone to eat processed over non-processed food.
It’s not a crime to sell this stuff, or offer any dieting service that may work and then charge people for it, but when the line is blurred between private business and Government advice, my conflict-of-interest sensors start to twitch. In another piece on Conley’s website, Jebb advises, impartially, “Enrol now in a Rosemary Conley class to get the information, support and encouragement you need.” Would you mind if an MP did a voiceover for a McDonald’s advert? I would.
In an online interview, according to the Times (I can’t find this online), Jebb discusses the importance of using “portion control”, while an ad goes by advertising Rosemary Conley’s Portion Pots (plastic measuring pots in bright colours which help you measure things if you are unable to operate kitchen scales). Now, as a nutritionist, Jebb is entitled to take money from whomsoever she pleases, and offer advice for money. But when she is the Head of Nutrition and Health Research at a “publicly-funded organisation dedicated to improving human health” (their words) – one of only two recipients of Government health research cash, along with the National Institute for Health Research – should she really be popping up on Rosemary Conley’s website helping to legitimise the health benefits of Rosemary Conley? In 2008, Jebb chaired a Food Standards Agency meeting which concluded that Conley’s Portion Pots “could be a valuable aid to losing weight.” On the website, she sings the praises, by name, of Benecol and Flora Pro-Activ. This is not a conflict of interest, just free advertising, because as far as I’m aware, she’s not even being paid by Raisio or Unilever, who make these products.
The Medical Research Council has defended Jebb’s position, saying that while it is “committed to transparency, scientific integrity and independence”, its scientists “can provide scientific advice or consultancy to third parties”. That’s OK, then. Government-paid advisers are for hire. They say that Jebb was working for Conley before she took up her post at the MRC, but the videos and columns are right there on Conley’s websites, and she was paid “under £10,000” a year for her expertise. I’m not sure when she took up her post, but she’s certainly been at the MRC since 2003, when she officially rubbished the Atkins diet, which again made headlines across the media, as it was a good headline. The Telegraph ran the story on August 13, 2003: ATKINS DIET MAY BE BAD FOR HEALTH, WARNS NUTRITIONIST. Five days later, the paper ran a follow-up story, headlined: ANTI-ATKINS NUTRITIONIST WORKING FOR FLOUR MILLERS. Turns out that Jebb’s research into diets had been part-funded to the tune of £10,000 by the Flour Advisory Bureau, the lobbying arm of the National Association of British and Irish Millers. Who make flour. Which people on the Atkins diet don’t eat much of.
Hey, it’s not exactly hold-the-front-page that the private sector is funding research. I know. It happens in every corner of the industry. But I felt like writing about this example, because although flogging processed food as a healthy alternative to unprocessed food is not a crime, I find it all a little tasteless when the influence of business can encroach upon the Government’s scientific and health advice. I might not, but a lot of people take Government advice seriously. And a headline on the front page of my Guardian telling me that Weight Watchers officially works is something I find hard to ignore. I thought the papers were finding it difficult to sell advertising, but the Guardian gave an advert away that day.
The Sunday Times quoted Dr Jebb, although I don’t know if this is an existing quote or one in response to their article. She said: “I have scientific advice which I am keen to get out to people – working with Rosemary Conley gives me an avenue to do that.” An avenue lined with money. Either work for the Government, Doc, and tell us how to live our lives, or work for Rosemary Conley and Weight Watchers, whom we may or may not choose to pay to find out how to live our lives.
Phew! Nobody in their right mind can tell me I’m being anti-science today!