Earlier this year, some of the most notorious food cops in the country (including Kelly Brownell and NYC Health Commissioner Thomas Frieden) attacked University of Alabama researcher and (at the time) Obesity Society president-elect Dr. David B. Allison for providing expert testimony to a federal court against mandatory menu labeling. The evidence he presented was damning. Rather than refute Allison’s claims, however, power-hungry health officials attacked his character. Now, evidence has come to light that challenges the reputability of the very same people who accused their colleague of bias.
Today’s New York Sun reported that the one study which comprises most of the support for the NYC Health Department’s menu labeling campaign was “criticized and rejected” by two of the most respected medical journals: the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Reports and JAMA, the journal of the American Medical Association. CDC editor Dr. Frederic Shaw wrote that the “conclusions being drawn by the study, are of course, problematic.”
After two rejections, researchers managed to get the study accepted by the American Journal of Public Health. This is problematic since deputy commissioner Mary Bassett — who authored the study along with Commissioner Frieden — is an associate editor at the publication. Basset also “tried to cherry pick scholars [such as Brownell and Marion Nestle] who have previously advocated for the regulation to act as peer reviewers of the study” (a big “no no” in the scientific community). Though Brownell attempted to backpedal when news hit the press, telling the Sun that he “would not review an article under such conditions,” he had previously agreed to review the study in an email exchange with Bassett. So much for academic transparency.
The city’s defense claims that there is “no basis for the plaintiff’s suggestion” that it’s unethical to ask menu labeling advocates to review a pro-menu labeling study. However, there are significant grounds for this ethics criticism. The academic community generally agrees that reviewers are not supposed to be the authors’ close colleagues, students, or friends. And if there is any conflict of interest, reviewers are supposed to immediately inform the editor. So Bassett effectively stacked the deck in her favor.
In the past, Frieden has acknowledged that “we don’t have 100 percent proof that it’s going to work.” Now it’s becoming apparent that menu labeling advocates don’t have any proof. And the one study they had is only evidence that Americans need warning labels on health officials more than we need them on our food.