Study claims Coca-Cola can block publication of research it funds
Cans of Coca-Cola sit in a refrigerator in San Francisco, on June 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Published Thursday, May 9, 2019 1:57PM EDT
Coca-Cola is able to prevent the publication of some research it has funded, according to a new study that examined agreements between the beverage behemoth and four North American universities.
The study, which was published Wednesday in the Journal of Public Health Policy, found no evidence that Coca-Cola had ever used this supposed veto power – only that it has signed agreements that seem to give it the ability to do so.
“Although it does not have the capacity to direct and control the day-to-day conduct of studies, Coca-Cola retains varied rights throughout the research process, including the power to terminate studies early without giving reasons,” the study reads.
The study claimed that Coca-Cola is not able to outright direct research it funds, but can influence it, including by threatening to shut down a project.
Some of the agreements also give Coca-Cola “the right to receive and comment on research prior to submission for publication,” although researchers are able to reject any suggestions offered by the company.
None of these clauses are present in the final version of the sole Canadian agreement examined, which was between Coca-Cola and two researchers at the University of Toronto. The study gave this agreement special attention, using emails obtained through a freedom of information request to show that one researcher was able to get Coca-Cola to remove language he was unhappy with from the agreement.
Negotiations over the Toronto agreement took place in 2013 and involved John Sievenpiper, a nutrition scientist whose research has previously been funded by the company.
Coca-Cola discloses its scientific research funding on a dedicated webpage. The page lists 11 initiatives involving the University of Toronto or the Toronto 3D Knowledge Synthesis and Clinical Trials Foundation between 2010 and 2016, with a total financial commitment of slightly more than US$400,000.
Sievenpiper, who has had affiliations with both organizations, is mentioned by name three times between 2010 and 2012. He twice landed unrestricted grants for investigating the effects of fructose.
Sievenpiper was the lead author of a 2012 paper which found that small doses of fructose – less than a person would receive if they consumed one daily serving of a sugar-sweetened beverage – do not seem to have adverse effects on body weight or other cardiometabolic risks. The paper does mention Coca-Cola as having provided Sievenpiper an unrestricted research grant as well as funding for him to travel and present his research.
In 2013, the company offered a US$45,000 grant to extend further funding to Sievenpiper and another scientist for their research into fructose and cardiometabolic risk.
Sievenpiper asked that the grant be changed to a donation and suggested removing several paragraphs from the funding agreement.
“We looked it over again and still find it very restrictive for being an ‘unrestricted grant,’” he wrote.
One of the clauses Sievenpiper sought to have removed would have allowed Coca-Cola to approve or reject “any communication or other material … discussing … the related work or accomplishments.” After much discussion, the two sides eventually settled on a compromise in which the two organizations would “consult with each other in good faith” about releasing information and the university could not use the name of The Coca-Cola Company without the company’s OK.
In a statement to CTV News, Sievenpiper said he found Coca-Cola to be “amenable” to his concerns and hands-off when it came to the specifics of his research.
“Coca-Cola was not involved in the design, conduct, analysis, interpretation or the decision to publish any of our research,” he said, adding that he has not had any funding agreements with the company since the 2013 one.
Coca-Cola updated its funding protocols in 2016 – after the agreements cited in the study were signed. Among other changes, the company now requires that any project it gives money to receives at least half of its funding from another organization.
“We agree research transparency and integrity are important,” the company said in a statement.
“We adopted these guidelines to address questions that can arise when we are the sole funder of this type of research.”
The study’s authors stress that they picked Coca-Cola only as a representative example – singling it out in part because it has previously made public commitments to transparency in its research funding.
They do not believe there is anything about the company’s funding agreements that goes beyond standard practice for global-scale businesses investing in university research. Even the ability to stop ongoing research is considered normal, as projects may be terminated because they are not progressing in accordance with the terms of the contract – although the study suggests Coca-Cola’s contracts allow it to push further.
“Although not all agreements we reviewed allow for full recall of research documents and materials, we identified several agreements that in effect allow Coca-Cola to terminate a study, if the findings are unfavorable to Coca-Cola,” the study reads.
The company says it gives researchers full control of the design, execution, and interpretation of their work, encourages them to publish their results, and never makes funding conditional based on the results of research.