Pressure group claims university ‘worryingly close’ to dairy industry

By Ben Bouckley

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Milk

A row has erupted after Wageningen University rejected pressure group claims that its academics are “worryingly close” to the dairy industry, after the institution issued a press release that allegedly exaggerated research findings.

The dispute followed the publication of a milk research paper​ by Soedamah-Muthu et al. in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition ​this January, which was partly sponsored by Dutch Dairy Association (NZO).

An associated press release in Dutch from the university based in Holland claimed that drinking 3 glasses of milk a day could potentially reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease (CVD) by up to 18 per cent.

But one of the researchers who wrote the paper, Professor Walter Willet, rubbished the claim in remarks reported by Dutch newspaper Volkskrant​:

He said: “The research only shows a weak and unimportant relationship between drinking milk and the development of heart and artery disease.”

Willet added: “It is totally misplaced to claim…there is a demonstrable relationship and not to mention that there is a lot more research which shows the opposite.”

A Wageningen University spokesman told that the Harvard (Willet) and Wageningen groups that co-authored the paper were working on a “joint exploratory statement”​ regarding it, which he expected would be published sometime next week.

University rejects conflict of interest

He also denied claims by Dutch animal rights organisation Wakker Dier that the university was too close to the nation’s dairy industry and major players such as Friesland Campina.

The spokesman said: “There are no links with the dairy industry on this release. We published it on our own account, and did not communicate about them on it or even tell them we were going to publish it.”

But he admitted close links between the university and the Dutch dairy industry, on issues as varied as health claims, animal welfare, feed production and food security.

“We are committed to the idea that our research results find their way to society, to improve products, find health claims, issues for better diets. It’s important that the results don’t stay within the halls of our ivory tower,”​ he said.

But a Wakker Dier spokesman told that “worryingly close”​ relations with industry saw the latter pay salaries for 3 professors at the university this year.

Taken together with an industry-funded international dairy school and a planned Friesland Campina research centre, the relationship was too close, he argued.

He said: “Sponsored research is accepted all over the world and is not wrong by definition. But you have to be careful.”

Advertising code challenge

However, the university spokesman said that there was nothing wrong with the research links with industry, which enabled information sharing, while professors paid by NZO only worked at the university one day a week.

He added: “What we want from our professors, whoever pays or appoints them, is that they publish views and findings in peer-review journals.

“Can the research be verified, reproduced, are we open about who financed it? These are key questions. But the main issue is not who paid, but what are the results, are they open for debate?”

However, the Wakker Dier spokesman emphasised the difference between the Dutch press release and the paper.

He quoted the researchers as writing: “Milk and dairy products cannot be recommended to benefit cardiovascular diseases health outcomes on the basis of this dose-response meta analysis.”

He added: “They say ‘you can’t conclude that milk is good [for such outcomes] on the basis of this research', but in the press release they changed it 180 degrees.”

The university spokesman admitted that the release had exaggerated the paper's findings slightly, but said the 18 per cent claim was in the paper, and reflected a meta-analysis of published articles on cardiovascular disease incidence.

The press release is now being assessed under the Dutch advertising code, with Wakker Dier arguing that universities should not be allowed to publish health claims for products not backed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

Dutch advertising rules state that producers or third-parties paid by producers cannot make such health claims, and the Wakker Dier spokesman said: “If a university acts like a food firm or an advertising agency, they should be treated in the same way.”

A court-style hearing under the code was scheduled for October 27, he said, with a judgement expected from 6 weeks after.

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