Concerns over conflict of interest: General Medical Council invests US$1M in fast food firms
16 Mar 2023 --- The UK’s General Medical Council has investments nearing £870,000 (US$1.05 million) in fast food and soft drink companies such as McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo, and Coca-Cola. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has raised the alarm over a conflict of interest after finding the investment details through a freedom of information request to the General Medical Council (GMC).
UK doctors are charged a compulsory £161 (US$194) one-off registration fee to be able to practice in the country and then a recurring yearly payment of £420 (US$507).
The medical council invests its money through Churches, Charities and Local Authorities Investment Management (CCLA). According to the BMJ, the regulator has “a say” on what CCLA invests in and has access to all decisions through CCLA’s reporting.
“Many doctors whose work involves dealing with the harms caused by junk food marketing would, if they knew, despair at how their money is being invested,” says Martin McKee, professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The sentiment is echoed by other practitioners, such as Sam Everington, a Tower Hamlets GP and chair of Tower Hamlets Clinical Commissioning Group.
“The GMC is funded by doctors in the UK. They would be horrified to know that their money is being invested in fast food companies that are the cause of so much disease and reduced quality and quantity of life and significantly more pressure on the NHS and workload of doctors,” he outlines.
Conflict of interest with fast food and big pharma
According to a spokesperson of the General Medical Council, as a registered charity, the organization has a duty to make sure it protects and maintains the value of its financial assets.
“As a registered, not-for-profit charity, we have a duty to make sure that we protect and safeguard the value of our financial assets - which are primarily generated from doctors’ registration fees - in a way that aligns with our values. We invest to make sure our reserves are protected against inflation.”
“We chose CCLA to manage our investments, because of their strong track record and high standards in ethical investing.”
“This include products and services such as tobacco, alcohol, pornography, gambling and high-interest rate lending. In addition, we are able to exclude companies where we have concerns about their approach to corporation tax.”
Furthermore, they do not put money in companies that produce landmines, cluster munitions, chemical or biological weapons or the extraction of thermal coal or tar sands, the GMC told the BMJ.
However, while the organization focuses on maintaining a solid financial portfolio, its investments in the food sector are aggressive compared to most investment funds.
The GMC has more money invested in Starbucks (US$264,045), for example, than in much larger companies like Alphabet (US$257,517), Amazon (US$246,064) or NVIDIA (US$97,561).
The GMC also has a US$127,778 investment in McDonald’s, a US$127,672 investment in PepsiCo and a US$114.211 investment in Coca-Cola. Furthermore, the company has US$204,315 invested in Abbott Laboratories, which is under investigation by the US DOJ for the deaths of a number of infants linked to its Michigan baby formula production facility.
“The investment policy is reviewed annually by the GMC’s Council. We are currently considering whether the ethical exclusions and thresholds remain relevant. We do not currently publish information about our investments on our website, but this is something we will consider,” explains the GMC spokesperson.
“CCLA invest in a manner that takes environmental, social and governance factors into account. CCLA work with companies such as Unilever, PepsiCo, Nestlé and Coca-Cola to urge them to commit to producing healthier products, which are more accessible and more affordable.”
Moreover, doctors also criticize that there is a conflict of interest with the investments of the fund in pharmaceutical companies – The GMC also invested more than £1.2m in drug companies, including Novo Nordisk, AstraZeneca, Merck, and Roche – and in private insurance and healthcare providers (investments amounting to US$567,300) and in medical device manufacturers (US$1.57 million).
In another case of a suspected conflict of interest, earlier this year, The US-based Center for Science in the Public Interest and 14 other public health organizations sent a letter calling for transparency from the federal government to disclose any potential financial conflicts of interest among the newly announced members of the Committee for the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2025 to 2030.
Unclear investing decisions
As of 10th March 2023, the GMC has £57.6 million (US$69.76 million) in investments and cash.
“Practicing UK doctors have no choice but to pay substantial annual fees to the GMC. The organization must show that it is using its funds wisely and I’m not convinced it is. It is unclear to me why the GMC holds so much money and why it has chosen to invest as it has,” says Glasgow-based GP Margaret McCartney.
“When the chief executive is paid over a quarter of a million per year, and a further six staff on more than £200,000 (US$241,015), doctors should know, with complete transparency, where their fees are being invested and why.”
According to the Food Foundation, the rates of obesity, undernutrition and stunting are increasing across the UK, with lower-income households being disproportionately affected, impacting the National Healthcare System (NHS) and broader society.
The problems related to overweight and obesity cost the UK an estimated £74 billion (US$89.13 billion) every year. This figure includes the burden felt by the NHS and the loss of productivity in the workforce.
Dr. Everington highlights that investing in fast food companies “is no different to investing in tobacco companies.”
Heavily marketable processed foods like potato chips, cookies, ice cream and French fries meet the same criteria used for decades to demonstrate the addictive qualities of smoking tobacco, noted in November a study by US researchers at the University of Michigan and Virginia Tech.
By Marc Cervera
This feature is provided by NutritionInsight’s sister website, FoodIngredientsFirst.
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