By Christie Keith
March 23, 2008
In our syndicated feature, I wrote that the most striking feature of the recent Western Veterinary Conference, held in Las Vegas, was the focus on improving quality of life for pets. But that wasn’t quite accurate.
The most striking feature was the wall-to-wall corporate sponsorship of everything from the lanyards holding our name tags to the shuttle buses that took us to and from our hotels. That’s not unusual, of course. Sponsorship is the name of the game at every convention I’ve ever attended.
But sitting at a series of seminars about veterinary health and nutrition, led by researchers and veterinarians working for big drug and pet food companies, and sponsored by those companies, too, gave me something of an ethical headache.
I’m not naive. It’s like this on the human side, too, where I got my start as a health writer in the early 90s. I know that the revolving door between industry, academia, and government spins at a dizzying pace, and the ties between the people investigating new drugs and foods and those regulating them are close ones.
This is certainly not news. For years, editors of scientific publications have been campaigning for better disclosure of conflicts of interest, with varying degrees of success. More and more attention is being paid in the scientific as well as the popular press about this issue, and multi-million dollar judgments have been made against companies for unethical practices involving scientific research and publication.
In fact, while we all might have forgotten it in the focus on how FDA handled the pet food recall crisis, there was another scandal in that agency just a year before. Lester Crawford — a veterinarian — resigned as head of the FDA due to undisclosed conflicts of interest:
Lester M. Crawford, who resigned mysteriously last fall just two months after being confirmed as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, will plead guilty today to charges that he hid his ownership of stock in food and drug companies that his agency regulated, his lawyer said.
The Justice Department charged Crawford yesterday with two misdemeanors for withholding the financial information, which included his ownership of shares in food and drink manufacturers Pepsico Inc. and Sysco Corp. and the drug company Embrex Inc.
Given the ever-increasing focus on this issue, what I saw at WVC perplexed me. I attended a number of scientific sessions, but saw exactly one presenter outline her conflicts of interest — companies who paid her for consulting or other services, whose drugs or products she was speaking on that day. I asked a presenter who I knew personally if she’d been asked to disclose her conflicts, and she told me no, she had not.
In human nutrition, it’s known that “Industry funding of nutrition-related scientific articles may bias conclusions in favor of sponsors’ products, with potentially significant implications for public health.” So, exactly how much faith am I supposed to have in someone who works for a big pet food company talking to a room full of vets about home made diets and food safety issues?
Let me ask you a question. Let’s suppose that I get hired to consult for Best Ever Holistic Pet Food Company. They pay me, not a fortune, but let’s say, enough to cover my mortgage for one year. And I don’t tell you this, and I come here and write a serious investigative piece on pet food, and conclude that Best Ever is, in fact, the best ever.
Then you find out.
Would you trust me? Even if I absolutely assured you that my background as a journalist, my credentials as a pet lover, my reputation, all should be enough to keep me honest and objective on the subject of pet food, and the fact that I’m on the Best Ever payroll will not influence me in any way?
You would not. You should not.
Oh, and Gina would fire me in five seconds flat.
And yet, when asked — not challenged, not accused, simply asked — about their financial conflicts, some veterinary researchers, like their human counterparts, bristle and insist their scientific process is in no way affected or compromised by their industry ties.
Things aren’t very different in the veterinary scientific press, either. For example, while the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association asks its contributors to disclose their financial conflicts when submitting work for publication, it does not make those public. I guess we’re just supposed to trust them, just like we’re supposed to trust those indignant scientists.
What can we do? The problem is at this point so huge, so inextricable from how our system of research, science, and medicine functions, that fixing it would require such a massive overhaul of our medical, economic, and educational structures that it’s almost impossible to imagine will ever happen. The best we can hope for, and it’s a piss poor best, is to see full and comprehensive disclosure become not just a good idea, but required.
Disclosure of any and all financial conflicts of interest needs be mandatory and thorough at all veterinary conferences, in all veterinary publications, and at every level right down to the local veterinary clinic. If industry is paying you, subsidizing you, sponsoring you, or giving you stuff, be it mugs and pens or trips to the Bahamas, tell me. Don’t you decide that you’re not influenced. Let me decide.
Things may be changing. The American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine did require full financial conflict of interest disclosures from presenters at its recent conference, and some of those who presented at WVC listed theirs at some point during their session, even if I only witnessed it once.
Sunshine, they say, is the best disinfectant. Disclosure may be more like a lightbulb, but it’s better than making what can often be life and death decisions in the dark.