A bill in the Oregon Senate that would require hospitals and long-term care facilities to offer plant-based meals to patients appears dead. It’s just one of hundreds of bills falling off the legislative agenda as lawmakers rush to finish up by the early weeks of summer.
But the bill’s demise has also sparked a kind of political murder mystery: Did the dairy industry influence the Oregon Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics to wield the knife that slayed the bill?
That’s the question being asked by many nutrition professionals upset that their association would oppose a measure aimed at encouraging healthy food options.
“It didn’t sound right,” said John Gobble, a Clackamas dietitian and former president of the Oregon academy. He said he wrote to the group’s current leaders complaining that “it looks like you’ve been influenced by big business — the big food industry — and that doesn’t make dietitians look very good.”
Gobble and other critics say they’re concerned the academy is too close to the dairy industry, which has fretted about declining milk sales as Americans increasingly turn to alternative beverages.
They point out that the academy and the Oregon Dairy Farmers Association echoed each other's testimony at a Senate hearing on the measure, House Bill 3342. And Anne Goetze, the president-elect of the dietitian's group, is also director of nutrition and business development for the Oregon Dairy and Nutrition Council.
“I see that as a huge conflict of interest,” said Gemma Hobbs, a Portland dietitian who works at two local hospitals.
“I have no idea what happened,” she added, “but I believe it is suspect. I do believe that the dairy council has a big influence over the academy.”
Goetze and Whitney Ellersick, the current president of the Oregon academy, both insisted that their group had not taken its cues from the dairy industry. They said the dietitians had their own concerns about how the bill could affect patient care in hospitals.
“Everybody’s looking for influence and inappropriate work,” Goetze said, “and that is just not the way we roll.”
Goetze said nutrition experts who work at hospitals and long-term care facilities were the first to raise objections to the bill. Among other things, she argued that the bill might actually limit patient options. While the bill defined plant-based as a vegan meal that doesn’t include animal products, she said many people prefer plant-based diets that also include some animal elements.
Ellersick, who heads nutrition services for the Portland School District, did not agree to an interview. But she said in an email exchange that “critics have it backward” and that it was actually the academy’s opposition that “influenced others and was cited in industry testimony.”
Advocates for plant-based diets and the dairy industry have long eyed each other warily. Leaders of vegan groups chafe at the industry’s big ad campaigns promoting dairy’s nutritional values while dairy farmers say critics are trying to demonize a food used for centuries.
In addition, business influence over the national professional association for dietitians has been a big issue. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics ran into a buzz saw of criticism in 2013 after a report came out accusing the association of cozy relationships with such big companies as McDonalds and Coca-Cola.
Two years later, after another flurry of bad publicity, the academy agreed to unwind a licensing deal it had made with Kraft Foods. That deal allowed the company to put the academy’s “Kids Eat Right” logo on packages of Kraft Singles, a highly processed cheese food criticized for its high sodium content.
“Put it on a bag of baby carrots or something a little bit more in tune with nutrition,” said Andy Bellatti, a Henderson, Nevada, nutritionist who co-founded a group that battled with the national academy. “Because no dietitian in their right mind would be telling a parent, ‘Make sure you buy your child more Kraft Singles, that’s what they need.’"
Goetze said those controversies are in the past and have not affected the Oregon academy. She noted that the leaders of the state group are all volunteers who set aside the interests of their employers and are elected by fellow members to their posts. She said that as an employee of the dairy council, she doesn’t get involved in legislative advocacy on behalf of the industry.
A 'Slippery Slope'
But Goetze acknowledged that she did introduce leaders of the academy to Tammy Dennee, the lobbyist for the Oregon dairy farmers, on April 29, two days before a Senate committee hearing on the bill.
The dietitians were in the Capitol that day to meet with lawmakers to discuss a variety of legislation. Dennee said the dietitians were already expressing concerns about the bill and she wanted to see if they could make common cause. Dennee wound up writing testimony for the dairy farmers that included several of the objections that the nutritionists put in their own statement.
She said the dairy farmers were concerned the bill would lead to the state down a “slippery slope.”
“Because a certain group of individuals think that we should eat a certain way,” Dennee said, “I’m not sure that should be the policy of the state of Oregon … I don’t want to grow old or be in my late 90s and go to a long-term care facility and have someone shift my diet simply because it becomes the policy of the state.”
In the testimony echoed by the dairy industry, the academy said that nutrition experts already work with hospitals to provide good food choices and that the new requirements could be costly and do little to improve patient health. The dietitians said the requirements could add to costs and that there’s little value in trying to change long-term eating habits during relatively short hospital stays.
Gobble, the former Oregon academy president, said many Portland-area hospitals do offer patients a wide variety of foods. But he said smaller facilities often only have a small number of pre-packaged meals. He recalled recently hearing from a doctor having a hard time getting a fresh banana for a patient in a smaller hospital in the metro area.
Dr. Neal Barnard, who heads the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, helped push through a similar bill in California. And he said that that a hospital stay is exactly the kind of “teachable moment” when patients recovering from heart surgery or a diabetic emergency might be open to improving their diet.
“You have the patient and the patient’s family riveted on what can they do to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” said Barnard, whose Washington D.C.-based nonprofit pushes plant-based diets and a turn away from using animals for food.
Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, chairs the Senate Human Services and Housing Committee and said she was initially inclined to advance the House-passed bill until hearing the negative testimony from the dietitians. At that point, she started canvassing fellow senators and decided that the bill didn’t have enough support to move forward this year.
“We’re just not ready to recommend a particular diet,” said Monnes Anderson, a retired public health nurse, “even though the science shows it is a really good diet.”
The senator said she’s already heard from at least one legislator interested in taking up the issue in a future session.