Although Coca-Cola funds health research at public universities in the United States and Canada, a new study has revealed that the company reserves the right to review findings early and to “terminate without reason.” The investigation also found that Coca-Cola has a clause which allows any data and intellectual property associated with the research to be intercepted.
The team reviewed over 87,000 documents that were obtained through Freedom of Information requests submitted by US Right to Know, a non-profit consumer and public health research group. According to the study authors, many of the clauses they found in the legal documents enable Coca-Cola to suppress “critical health information.”
The experts said that the clauses are not in compliance with Coca-Cola’s commitment to transparent and “unrestricted” support for science, and they are calling for corporate funders to publish lists of terminated research.
Study lead author Dr. Sarah Steele is a policy researcher in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge.
“It is certainly true that the contracts we have found allow for unfavorable developments or findings to be quashed prior to publication,” said Dr. Steele. “Coca-Cola have declared themselves at the forefront of transparency when it comes to food and beverage giants funding health research. In fact, our study suggests that important research might never see the light of day and we would never know about it.”
“We are already hearing accusations from experts in nutrition that the food industry is copying tactics from big tobacco’s playbook. Corporate social responsibility has to be more than just shiny websites stating progressive policies that get ignored.”
Coca-Cola’s own transparency website claims that scientists retain full control over their research and the company has no right to prevent the publication of any findings. However, the company retains a strong level of control throughout the process, including the right to receive updates and the power to terminate studies early without reason.
Within the documents, one scientist expressed concern over intellectual property and uncertainty over his study termination. Another scientist argued that his contract was “very restrictive for an ‘unrestricted grant.’”
“These contracts suggest that Coke wanted the power to bury research it funded that might detract from its image or profits,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of US Right to Know. “With the power to trumpet positive findings and bury negative ones, Coke-funded science seems more like an exercise in public relations.”
The researchers acknowledge that the food and beverage industry may be updating research contracts as new public commitments are made, but without access to those contracts it is not clear.
“Journals should require authors of funded research to upload the research agreements for studies as appendices to any peer-reviewed publication,” said Dr. Steele. “The lack of robust information on input by industry and on studies terminated before results are published, makes it impossible to know how much of the research entering the public domain reflects industry positions.”
The study is published in the Journal of Public Health Policy.
By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer
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