Food for thought? Potential conflicts of interest in academic experts advising government and charities on dietary policies.
Sommaire de l'article
A conflict of interest (CoI) can occur between public duty and private interest, in which a public official's private-capacity interest could improperly influence the performance of their official duties and responsibilities. The most tangible and commonly considered CoI are financial. However, CoI can also arise due to other types of influence including interpersonal relationships, career progression, or ideology. CoI thus exist in academia, business, government and non-governmental organisations. However, public knowledge of CoI is currently limited due to a lack of information. The mechanisms of managing potential conflicts of interest also remain unclear due to a lack of guidelines. We therefore examined the independence of academic experts and how well potential CoI are identified and addressed in four government and non-governmental organisations in the UK responsible for the development of food policy.
Policy analysis. We developed an analytical framework to explore CoI in high-level UK food policy advice, using four case studies. Two government policy-making bodies: Department of Health 'Obesity Review Group' (ORG), 'Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition' (SACN) and two charities: 'Action on Sugar' (AoS), & 'Heart of Mersey' (HoM). Information was obtained from publicly available sources and declarations. We developed a five point ordinal scale based upon the ideology of the Nolan Principles of Public Life. Group members were individually categorised on the ordinal ConScale from "0", (complete independence from the food and drink industry) to "4", (employed by the food and drink industry or a representative organisation).
CoI involving various industries have long been evident in policy making, academia and clinical practice. Suggested approaches for managing CoI could be categorised as "deny", "describe", or "diminish". Declared CoI were common in the ORG and SACN. 4 out of 28 ORG members were direct industry employees. In SACN 11 out of 17 members declared industry advisory roles or industry research funding. The two charities appeared to have equally strong academic expertise but fewer conflicts. No HoM members declared CoI. 5 out of 21 AoS members declared links with industry, mainly pharmaceutical companies. We were unable to obtain information on conflicts for some individuals.
Conflicts of interest are unavoidable but potentially manageable. Government organisations responsible for policy development and implementation must institutionalize an approach to identify (disclose) and manage (mitigate or eliminate) perceived and actual CoI to improve public confidence in government decision-making relevant to food policy.