The chief nutrition official at the National Institutes of Health is also helping to run a foundation sponsored by the food and beverage industry, which a consumer group has charged is a violation of federal conflict-of-interest regulations.
Dr. Artemis Simopoulos, chairman of NIH's nutrition coordinating committee, is a trustee and executive committee member of the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which sponsors research on subjects such as caffeine, food additives and sweeteners, and "maintains dialogue with regulatory agencies," according to its brochure.
Its annual budget of more than $3 million comes almost entirely from member corporations, which include the Coca-Cola Co., Pepsico Inc., Hershey Foods, General Mills, Nabisco, H.J. Heinz, Kellogg Company, Kraft Inc., the Pillsbury Co. and other major food and soft drink manufacturers.
The charge was made by the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) in a letter, dated Aug. 29, to Dr. James B. Wyngaarden, director of the National Institutes of Health. Michael Jacobson, executive director of the center, said he sent the letter after Simopoulos refused his group's request that she resign from ILSI's board.
"A high-ranking public health official like Dr. Simopoulos should not be actively involved in . . . an organization with vested interests, like ILSI," Jacobson's letter said. "Her involvement . . . could conceivably lead her to be a special conduit to industry for information about pending government actions. It might also lead her to encourage or discourage particular DHHS Department of Health and Human Services research or educational programs, to the benefit of . . . ILSI's corporate members and supporters."
Dr. Peter Dews, a Harvard Medical School professor and ILSI trustee, said Simopoulos' role in ILSI is "highly appropriate . . . particularly with the attitude of the present administration, looking to government agencies, private agencies and the industrial sector to work together on problems.
"The fact that we do have resources from industry and we're in the same business as NIH, trying to improve the health of people make it . . . appropriate that she should advise us . . . on some of the directions for research, and at the same time tell us what is going on at NIH."
CSPI's letter cites an HHS regulation that forbids employes from serving on the board of any organization to which the employe's duties are sufficiently related to cause even an apparent conflict of interest.
Wyngaarden has not replied to the letter. Robert Lanman, a lawyer with the HHS general counsel's office, said a written response would be ready within the next week. He acknowledged the existence of the regulation, adding, "That's going to be what we address specifically . . . . I'd prefer not to comment until we respond in writing."
Reached in Switzerland, where she was attending a symposium, Simopoulos said, "I have no comment and the NIH will respond as appropriate." NIH officials also declined to comment on the charge.
ILSI's board members are not paid for their work for the organization, according to Sharon Senzik, an ILSI administrator. However, board members from government and academic institutions are reimbursed for expenses, she said.
Jacobson said he learned of Simopoulos' membership on ILSI's board several months ago. "I was shocked," he said. "To have the person in charge of nutrition at NIH . . . on the board of an organ of the food companies, is a direct conflict of interest."
Simopoulos is chairman of NIH's nutrition coordinating committee, a high-level body that oversees all nutrition research done at the various institutes. The committee does not award grants, but reviews some research proposals, according to an NIH spokesman.
ILSI was founded in 1978 by about 15 corporations to promote research on the safety of caffeine and other substances, according to Dews. Simopoulos joined ILSI's board of trustees in 1982. Last Jan. 1, ILSI took over the Nutrition Foundation, an industry-funded organization that had run into financial difficulties.