Can researchers engage safely with the food industry?

27 August 2019

Researchers from The University of Queensland and University of Cambridge are exploring ways to help scientists better protect their work from the influence of the food industry.

With rising obesity levels, and significant public interest in diet and health, the ethics surrounding research in this area is centre-stage.

UQ School of Public Health nutrition expert Dr Katherine Cullerton said scientists have long been divided on the best way to manage industry involvement in diet and health research.

“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,” Dr Cullerton said.

“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 sought to build consensus on this issue through seeking the views of population health researchers and research stakeholders (e.g. funders, policy officers and journals) internationally.

“The research found high levels of agreement among researchers and research stakeholders for many principles designed to prevent or manage conflicts of interest,” she said.

“More contentious were principles that required values-based decision-making, such as determining which organisations in the food sector are acceptable to interact with.

“Our study, however, showed there was in fact consensus on many of the principles, although researchers are divided on what is acceptable when it comes to funding and interactions with these companies,” she said.

“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.”

This research highlights the fact that greater understanding of the risks associated with accepting food industry funding or simply interacting with food companies was necessary.

“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,” Dr Cullerton said.

“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 internationally-agreed guidance and a toolkit to help researchers better manage the risks resulting from interacting with the food industry.  

This study is published in PLOS ONE(DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0221250).

Media: Dr Katherine Cullerton,, +61 7 3365 2924; Faculty of Medicine Communications,, +61 7 3365 5118, +61 436 368 746.