02 August 2013

Nutrition Society in cahoots with food industry

Food and nutrition go together, that’s common sense.  We’ve however come far from the time of organic agriculture, and moved quite a ways from ‘needs’ to ‘wants’, the latter being manufactured by those seeking to profit from greed and ignorance.  The introduction of chemicals to enhance agricultural yields, and their use in so many products that make for human contact, over and above the poisons unleashed to the elements in production processes, have imprinted many question marks over things we consume, food included. 

Impurities in food, the evidence shows, are not always accidents.  It is clear that profit has prevailed over ethics, leading to contaminated products being dumped on unsuspecting populations.  This state of affairs is worsened by unethical advertising consisting of wild exaggeration, false claims and fear-mongering.  This is why nutritional watchdogs are expected to keep the food industry at arm’s length.  In Sri Lanka, this doesn’t seem to be the case.  This is what The Nation found out about the Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka (NSSL).

The NSSL, in its note about membership published in its official website states Membership of the Society is open to applicants who can demonstrate a genuine interest in the science of human nutrition’.  That’s vague. There is an elaboration, however, with respect to standards, basically a crib from the Nutrition Society of the UK.  The devil is in the details.  The competencies expected (as stated in the document) are quite extensive and not the sort that a mere BSc in Nutrition could confer. 

More importantly, the NSSL appears to be strangely reluctant to tighten admission criteria to make for a more professional and effective body.  Proposals to grade members as full and affiliate with the former limited to those qualified in Human Nutrition have fallen by the wayside.   Why?

How many qualified individuals are there who can engage effectively in nutrition policy planning abd policy evaluation?  Why is the NSSL silent on the specialization of the Council Members?  Why can’t the relevant members disclose their doctoral field of study? Does the Society think that some dabbling in nutrition as part fulfilment of a post-graduate degree warrant the tag ‘Qualified Nutritionist’?  As things stand, the NSSL does not have the moral and professional capacity to offer ‘expert opinion’ on food, nutrition and relevant policy matters. 

Unholy alliance
The aforementioned website until a few days ago carried the list of Council Members for the previous year 2011/12.  It mentions as Joint Secretary, Dr Sanath Mahawithanage, described as the ‘Senior Nutrition and Regulation Manager’ of Fonterra Brands Lanka Pvt Ltd.  He is said to have a BSc in Human Biology as well as a PhD (discipline undisclosed).  Fonterra (which markets a range of Anchor products, Raththi and Anlene) clearly understood how useful it was to have a presence in the NSSL Council.  The NSSL clearly knew who paid Mahawithanage’s salary.  Neither the NSSL nor Mahawithanage appear to have understood the meaning of ‘conflict of interest’.  How then could the NSSL make any statement on anything related to Fonterra brands?   

The NSSL as of today does not have a policy on sponsorships. Perhaps this is why, the NSSL cannot raise objections when those in the food industry sponsor events that are of professional interest to nutritionists, where in fact matters of nutrition are taken up, for example the annual sessions of the Sri Lanka Medical Association.  Among the sponsors of the 2012 event was Fonterra and the fact was acknowledged in the souvenir published to mark the sessions.  This year, Fonterra (and the SLMA) seem to have got smarter.  Instead of acknowledgement or advertisement, there’s an insert, clipped to the back cover.  A few years or months down the line few if any of the souvenirs would have the loose piece of paper still clipped.  Paper gets disassociated, responsibility gets disconnected too. Morality is preserved.  Perhaps the SLMA was being cute. Perhaps they were innocent and Fonterra smart.  Either way, the NSSL had a moral obligation to raise the issue. It was not. 

Change the Act
Here’s what the NSSL says about itself:Nutrition Society of Sri Lanka was established 1972 and incorporated by the Parliamentary Act No 5 (1985) of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. The aim of the Nutrition Society is to establish links between nutritionists in the Sri Lanka in order to promote the science of nutrition and its application to the health of the population in the country. Highly regarded by the scientific community, Nutrition Society is the learned society for nutrition.’

Given what we’ve found, the NSSL’s stated love for the health of the citizenry is under a cloud.  As for the scientific community holding the NSSL in ‘high regard’, suffice to say that the then Secretary to the Ministry of Health and Nutrition, Dr. Ravi Ruberu, UNICEF, the WHO and Prof. Chandrika Wijeratne (who was due to make a presentation) did not attend the Annual Sessions of the Society in 2012, perhaps due to sponsorship by the milk food industry.

Today, the NSSL is certainly a far cry from being ‘the learned society for nutrition’. Such a tag can only be regained by radical amendments to the said Act and the Constitution of the NSSL.  The time has passed, for example, when any medical doctor could be recognised as ‘Nutritionists’ by the health authorities, or offered automatic membership in the NSSL (unless the NSSL re-invents itself as an NGO in which case it’s word will come with many more questions that at present). 

The Ministry of Health must act.  The Parliament must act.  The NSSL must get its act together, because (going by its own statements) it can play an effective role in this society – on the side of the consumer, not the corporate. The citizens need to be confident that the NSSL has the professional capacity and is morally suited to offer opinion on nutrition-related matters. As of now it appears that it is all about ‘industrial nutrition’.  That’s about profit.  Not about health.

[Malinda Seneviratne is currently the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation'.  He can be contacted at msenevira@gmail.com]