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Food Ethics - Research

Shifting the Focus from Pharma to Food:
Industry Sponsorship and Partnership in Health-Related Food Research,
Nutrition Policy, Education, and Practice


A Collaborative Research Project with the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University through its Lab on Institutional Corruption

This project explores the practical impact and ethical implications of industry-sponsorship on health related food research and on nutrition education and practice. Issues of concern include:

  • the focus on research exploring the health benefits of foods and food components, neglecting the potential adverse effects of consuming those foods or components for their purported health benefits (this might be characterized as a corruption of health-related food and nutrition research);
  • the regulatory framework governing the use of claims about purported health benefits in labeling and advertising to promote foods, including the implications of the limited regulation of structure/function claims on food labeling in the United States.

The project will explore a variety of potential policy solutions currently under discussion (as well as proposing new ones) including:

  • the development of new funding streams for nutrition research,
  • building institutional structures to generate and reinforce reputations based on public interest research in food and nutrition, and
  • the development of improved regulatory oversight, drawing on lessons from comparative regulation in Europe and elsewhere.

The project is also collecting and developing tools to assist the leaders of academic institutions who wish to address industry-related conflicts of interest in a principled manner.

Jonathan Marks, Director of the Bioethics Program, leads this research collaboration, which he launched with Donald B. Thompson, emeritus professor of food science at Penn State.  They have benefited from the assistance of former postdoctoral fellow Christopher Mayes, and current fellow, Bryan Cwik.

Workshops and Research Symposia


Industry Sponsorship and Health-Related Food Research:
Institutional Integrity, Ethical Challenges, and Policy Implications

Symposium jointly sponsored by the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State
and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University
March 29–30, 2012


Scope and Aims of the Symposium

(1) This symposium is part of a collaborative research project jointly funded by the Rock Ethics Institute at Penn State, through its Bioethics Initiative, and by the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard through its Lab on Institutional Corruption.

(2) This symposium builds on an earlier workshop entitled “Industry-Sponsored Research on Food and Health:  Ethical Challenges and Policy Implications” held at Penn State in March 2008, and on research conducted during 2010–12 as part of this research collaboration.

(3) The symposium will focus on health-related food and nutrition research related to functional foods, that is, foods marketed for purported health benefits above and beyond basic nutrition.

(4)  The symposium will:

(a) explore the challenges to the integrity of health-related food research on functional foods sponsored by industry, including the distortion of research agendas, the risk of bias, impacts on the interpretation of nutrition studies, and related concerns;

(b) explore the ethical implications of this research and of industry funding for the academy (both academic institutions and the researchers they employ), editors and peer reviewers of nutrition journals (and other scientific publications), and professional associations;

(c) explore the potential policy implications of these issues, and lay the foundations for the analysis of some principled policy responses including:

  1. the regulation of health claims (broadly construed) on food labeling and in food advertising;
  2. the provision of public funding streams to remedy distortions in health-related food research on functional foods; and
  3. the creation of templates and decision tools to help academic administrators address individual and institutional conflicts of interest.

(d) identify next steps in the research collaboration including:

  1. the conduct or solicitation of further research;
  2. the development of pilot projects to address one or more issues of concern;
  3. the engagement of policymakers;
  4. the value, function and content of future workshops.


For a report of the symposium, please click here.

Publications and Working Papers

Marks, Jonathan H., Toward a Systemic Ethics of Public-Private Partnerships Related to Food and Health, Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (forthcoming), 24(3) (2014)

Mayes, Christopher, “Governing through choice: Food labels and the confluence of food industry and public health discourse to create ‘healthy consumers,’Social Theory & Health, (Sept. 2014) | doi:10.1057/sth.2014.12

Christopher Mayes and Donald B. Thompson, Is Nutritional Advocacy Morally Indigestible? A Critical Analysis of the Scientific and Ethical Implications of ‘Healthy’ Food Choice Discourse in Liberal Societies, Public Health Ethics (2014) 7 (2): 158-169

Marks, Jonathan H., What's the Big Deal?: The Ethics of Public-Private Partnerships Related to Food and Health (May 23, 2013). Edmond J. Safra Working Paper No. 11.

Marks, Jonathan H.,(2013): Objects Closer Than They Appear: Regulating Health-Based Advertising of Food, The American Journal of Bioethics, 13:5, 23-25

Thompson, Donald B., and Bryan McDonald, “What Food is ‘Good’ for You? Toward a Pragmatic Consideration of Multiple Values Domains,” J. Agric. & Environ. Ethics, 26(1) (2013): 137-163

Marks, Jonathan H., "On Regularity and Regulation, Health Claims and Hype," Hastings Center Report 41.4 (2011): 11–12.

Marks, Jonathan H., and Donald B. Thompson, "Shifting the Focus: Conflict of Interest and the Food Industry," American Journal of Bioethics 11.1 (2011): 44–46.

Thompson, Donald B., “Natural Food and the Pastoral:  A Sentimental Notion?” J. Agric. & Environ. Ethics 24.2 (2010): 165–194.