Leaked email reveals dietitian’s murky relationship with Monsanto
It's pretty standard for a company to pay experts to support a corporate cause. But one dietician who receives funding from Monsanto argues for the company's line while, not publicly disclosing her ties to the company.
Mary Lee Chin, a registered dietitian, is part of Monsanto's Leaders Engaged in Advancing Dialogue (L.E.A.D.) initiative, which, according to Monsanto's site, consists of a "group of 15 communications leaders" who "communicate with consumers ... about how food is grown." Monsanto's site noted that members receive funding from the company.
Mic obtained emails that reveal Chin highlighting the group's outreach capabilities — making it seem as though the dietitians are more like spokespeople than consultants. What's more concerning, however, is Chin's own behavior online. In the emails, she touts the network's ability to generate buzz online, yet she often fails to disclose her Monsanto partnership to her social media followers.
The U.S. Right to Know, a food industry watchdog group who has received funding from the Organic Consumers Association, shared the emails with Mic after obtaining them from a Freedom of Information Act request to the University of Florida.
Monsanto-paid dietitians have "tremendous outreach capabilities"
In October 2014, Chin emailed with Jon Entine, a science journalist who founded the Genetic Literacy Project, a blog that defends GMOs and pesticide use. (Note: Entine has no current professional ties to Monsanto, but he authored a book defending the pesticide atrazine. The book was published by the American Council on Science and Health, a group that received funding from Syngenta, an agrochemical company that sells atrazine. He also used to run a media firm that counted Monsanto as a client.)
Chin wrote that she hoped Entine would consider inviting the L.E.A.D. group to the 2015 Biotech Literacy Project, a biotech conference about educating the public about GMOs, which is sponsored by Entine's Genetic Literacy Project.
In the emails, Chin wrote that the L.E.A.D. group has "tremendous outreach capabilities." She noted that during a three-day meeting, the L.E.A.D Network "generated 2.6 million hits on social media."
Chin attended the Biotech Literacy Project in 2014 and noted she "put the experience to good use" because she was "debating in media" to oppose GMO labeling in Colorado.
In her email, Chin suggests social media is a valuable way to shape public opinion. Indeed, many companies compensate dietitians for tweeting brand-friendly content. Several dietitians partner with multiple companies. For example: Robyn Flipse, another dietician who is part of the L.E.A.D Network, has a lengthy client list that includes products like Bayer multivitamins, Dove chocolate, Frito-Lay chips, Splenda and Nestle Tollhouse chocolate chip cookies.
Interest groups like the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying group that also partners with dietitians, disclose an aggregate sum of how much they compensate consultants like dietitians. However, Monsanto does not disclose how much it spends compensating dietitian-consultants; "That's simply not our practice," Christi Dixon, a Monsanto spokesperson, said in an email when asked about the network's compensation.
Dietitians — pawns in the PR war over GMOs?
Paying dietitians to promote GMOs is one of the many strategies Monsanto employs to garner public goodwill. Recently unsealed documents revealed that the company had ghostwritten research about glyphosate and later hired academics who would claim to have authored the research papers, the New York Times reported.
It makes sense: Expert third-party voices — like academics and dietitians — appear more trustworthy.
Confusing disclosures on social media
Browsing Chin's tweets, a reader might not realize she's a paid consultant for Monsanto. Nowhere on her Twitter bio does she mention she works for the corporation, and she uses #client or #sponsor inconsistently on tweets that mention GMOs.
On March 15, Chin posted a link to a Medium article written by Robb Fraley, Monsanto's chief technology officer. She included the hashtags #sponsored and #GMOs.
The day before — on March 14 — Chin tweeted an article about a Cornell University professor advocating for GMOs and included #GMOs but did not put any disclosure about her partnership with Monsanto.
Anything written by a Monsanto spokesperson that Chin posts seems to merit a #sponsored, but anything generally relating to GMOs does not. Take a look at these other tweets about GMOs that make no mention of Chin's relationship with Monsanto.
Unsettling — and invisible — corporate partnerships
Chin's bio on the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics 2017 Education Conferences suggests that she advocates for transparency.
"Aware that many divisive and emotional food issues ignite a firestorm of debate, she advocates moving from polarizing rhetoric to open, value-based and professional dialogue," the bio reads.
"The act of hiding [corporate partnerships] only adds to the notion that some of these partnerships are controversial" - Andy Belatti, strategic director for Dietitians for Professional Integrity
"Corporate partnerships should be clearly disclosed," Andy Belatti, strategic director for Dietitians for Professional Integrity — a group that's been outspoken about removing corporate influence — said in an email. He went on to explain that consulting work should be mentioned in a professional bio and on social media profiles. "This is not only ethical; it also helps build public trust."
"Nothing raises a red flag like omitting these types of partnerships," Belatti noted. "If anything, the act of hiding them only adds to the notion that some of these partnerships are controversial."
Some dietitians are becoming increasingly vocal about the importance of transparency surrounding corporate partnerships. The issue came to the forefront during the recent election for the president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the largest group of dietitians in the U.S. In February 2017, the academy asked a Texas dietitian named Anna Macnak to remove a tweet disclosing that Neva Cochran, one presidential candidate, had worked with the American Beverage Association, the soda industry's lobbying group.
Cochran, who did not win the academy's presidential election, had previously promoted soda as a necessary source of calories for active kids and teens, denoting her ABA partnership with the hashtag #Advisor.
"For a nutritionist of any kind, disclosure of food industry financial ties is always a good idea," Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies and Public Health at New York University, said in an email.
"It's not impossible that the last [Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics] presidential election was determined by the failure of one candidate to disclose ties to the soda industry," she said, alluding to Cochran losing the most recent academy election.
The gray area of partnership disclosure
According to Monsanto's guidelines, Chin's activity hasn't violated any part of their contract.
"In our contract, we advise the network members that if the network is promoting Monsanto's products, people or services, since the network has a material connection, the network should disclose the relationship," Milton Stokes, a registered dietician and Monsanto employee who heads up the L.E.A.D Network, said in an email.
"If the tweet or blog is just information that is already publicly available, such as the definition of biotechnology or explaining digital agriculture, then that would not require disclosure," Stokes said.
Here's where things become gray. Promoting information about digital agriculture and GMOs that isn't specifically authored by Monsanto employees still helps Monsanto. The multinational corporation represents 26% of the global proprietary seed market, making it the world's biggest supplier of GM seeds. When this network of dietitians posts to their social media pages to support or defend GMOs, they are, essentially, helping Monsanto normalize GE foods — and they're paid for it.
When asked about the role of dietitians at Monsanto, Stokes gave the following statement:
Registered Dietitians are employed in a variety of settings, including health care, wellness, foodservice administration, food industry, and many others. The real question, in my opinion, is why wouldn't an agricultural company like Monsanto work with dietitians? Seed producers sit at the first step of the food supply chain, and in addition to row crops, Monsanto has a vegetable seed business where we focus on enhancing seeds in fruit and vegetable crops. The conversation about food is an important one. We know everyone isn't going to agree with us, but we're glad that people are open to sharing their questions and concerns about the big challenges we're all facing.
But when dietitians obfuscate their corporate partnerships, it becomes harder to have authentic dialogue about food. The lack of transparency casts a cloud of doubt; it's hard to consider experts like Chin an unbiased source of information on GMOs or pesticides.
Chin did not respond to Mic's requests for comment.
March 23, 2016, 10:00 a.m.: This story has been updated.