Wheat From Chaff

Dietician Dismissed From Policy Group Pointed Out Other Members’ GMO Food Ties

Objective voices or children of the GMO corn?
Objective voices or children of the GMO corn? Photo: iStockphoto

There’s infighting at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: A few months ago, California-based dietician Carole Bartolotto noticed that two of her peers on a GMO-food-related working group had connections to the multinational biotech company Monsanto. As the Times reports, Bartolotto wrote an e-mail to a manager at the organization asking about its official conflict of interest policy; after all, the group is known for its credible positions on topics relating to food and diet. The manager responded that potential conflicts of interest — a $5,000 “Farm Mom” prize from Monsanto, in this case, and employment at a nonprofit funded in part by corporations like DuPont and Cargill — didn’t automatically disqualify them from serving as work group members who in turn develop official positions on genetically modified foods. That’s when things turned sour for Bartolotto.

A month later, the dietician received a letter cosigned by the subcommittee chairman and a research director at the 72,000-member-strong organization informing her that she had been dismissed from the work group. Does this mean the gene splicers at Monsanto and other big agribusiness are also really good at weeding out opponents within an organization that claims its online content and positions are “independent from outside interests and arrangements”?

In their letter to Ms. Bartolotto, the Academy’s Bill Swan and Paula Jean Ziegler said that Bartolotto’s failure to disclose a consulting business — an actual conflict of interest, according to the group — had led to the decision. “I didn’t list it because I didn’t think it was an issue at all,” she tells the Times, adding she had “consulted” exactly once, for a friend’s wife. Ms. Bartolotto tells the paper she has since sent many e-mails in an effort to open a dialogue on her dismissal, but no one from the group has written back. An Academy spokesperson tells the Times the dismissal would be “discussed internally” today.

The development comes not only at a time when Whole Foods has announced a move to prominently label all of its products that include GMO ingredients by 2018, but also just as a rising wave of opposition against big agribusiness has resulted in a pervasive culture of suspicion, where widely circulated Internet lists of companies depict Monsanto as a string-pulling organization that owns food companies it actually does not.

Intentional or not, shadowy or otherwise, all signs point to a degradation of trust. Is it possible to expect anyone with direct or indirect ties to a multinational corporation that boasted a $126 million profit in 2012 to offer a reliable position on genetically modified foods, even if the working group doesn’t actually write position papers? As long as the safety of biotech foods remains debatable, and companies like Monsanto — Internet conspiracies theories aside — have a healthy amount of money to spend, it’s ineluctable for the public to believe these companies can also easily buy the opinions of some who write food policy.

Food Politics Creates Rift in Panel on Labeling [NYT]
Rift at Dietetics Academy Document [NYT]
No, These Food Companies Are Not Owned by Monsanto [Motley Fool]
Earlier: Whole Foods to Label All Genetically Modified Foods

Dietician Dismissed From Policy Group Pointed Out Other Members’ GMO Food