Researchers from The University of Queensland and University of Cambridge are exploring ways to best manage food industry involvement in diet and health research, as well as better protect scientists’ work from industry influence.

The ethics surrounding research in diet and health has long divided scientists on what can be done to prevent and manage conflicts of interest.

“While some scientists feel that the food industry should never be involved, many take the view that achieving healthier diets among whole populations will require actions by the food industry – and for these actions to be effective it requires new research and access to food industry data,” said UQ School of Public Health nutrition expert Dr Katherine Cullerton.

“As government funding for research is poorly available in some nations, more academics are looking to industries to contribute funding. This is a particular challenge in low income countries, which represent important, emerging markets for food companies.”

The study looked to build consensus on the issue through international surveying health researchers and research stakeholders, such as funders, policy officers and journals.

It found “high levels of agreement” among researchers and stakeholders to design principles that prevent or manage conflicts of interest, while “more contentious principles” were those requiring value-based decision-making, such as determining which organisations in the food sector are acceptable to interact with.

“Companies in the food industry want to influence food and public health policy in their favour. They fund certain areas of research for many reasons; one reason can be to deflect attention away from products that are associated with poor health outcomes,” Cullerton said.

“Some researchers are unaware that they are susceptible to conflicts of interest or that they might be at risk of unconscious biases adversely affecting their science.

“Ultimately, all of these factors represent significant reputational risks for researchers.”

In the final stage of this research, Dr Cullerton and her colleagues in Cambridge will develop an internationally-agreed guidance and a toolkit to help researchers better manage the risks resulting from interacting with the food industry.

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