Kellogg's paid 'independent experts' $13,000 a year to push their breakfast cereals without telling anyone they worked for the company

Kellogg touted a distinguished-sounding breakfast council of independent experts dedicated to guiding its nutritional efforts
  • Kellogg's paid 'independent experts' to praise its cereals on social media 
  • The cereal giant paid the 'Breakfast Council' experts an average of $13,000 a year
  • Kellogg claims the Breakfast Council helped guide company strategy

Breakfast cereal giant Kellogg's paid 'independent experts' to praise the nutritional value and taste of the company's products on social media, it has emerged

On its website, Kellogg's touted a distinguished-sounding 'Breakfast Council' of 'independent experts' who helped guide its nutritional efforts.

However a contract and emails obtained by the Associated Press show that the maker of Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies paid the experts to engage in 'nutrition influencer outreach' and avoid offering their services to products that were 'competitive or negative to cereal.'

The company paid the experts an average of $13,000 a year to claim that Kellogg's was their favorite brand on social media, or so they would tout the cereal during TV or other public appearances.

Kellogg's spokesperson Kris Charles told Fortune that the experts' association with the company was disclosed at public appearances. However when they appeared on television segments, the viewers weren't always forewarned.

'I'm still feeling great from my bowl of cereal & milk this morning! Mini-Wheats are my fave,' said Sylvia Klinger, a dietitian and council member who shared a photo of the cereal during a Twitter chat with Kellogg about the benefits of its product. Kellogg introduced the dietitian as a 'Breakfast Council Member.'

Without noting her relationship with the company, another council member and dietitian chimed in to say Mini-Wheats were her favorite, too. She included a photo of Frosted Mini-Wheats.

For Kellogg's, the breakfast council — in existence between 2011 and this year — blurred the lines between cereal promotion and impartial nutrition guidance.

The company used the council to teach a continuing education class for dietitians, publish an academic paper on breakfast, and try to influence the government's dietary guidelines.

The Kellogg's Breakfast Council included a professor of nutrition, a pediatrician and dietitians. Kellogg said the council's activities were clearly sponsored.

 Sylvia Klinger, seen here with her doctorate degree, is an experience dietitian and was hired by Kellogg's to promote its products 

Sylvia Klinger, seen here with her doctorate degree, is an experience dietitian and was hired by Kellogg's to promote its products 

 Dayle Hayes (left) was also part of the 'Breakfast Club' and is a nutrition consultant for schools in Montana 

Dayle Hayes (left) was also part of the 'Breakfast Club' and is a nutrition consultant for schools in Montana 

Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa who writes about industry influence in nutrition, said he did not believe it was clear to the public that the council members were compensated, especially since Kellogg described them as 'independent.'

'It's not an automatic leap. I don't think people think about these conflicts that deeply,' he said.

Dayle Hayes, a dietitian who participated in the Twitter chat in 2014, said that she prides herself on her ethics and transparency, and that her disclosure practices have changed with evolving standards.

Based on current standards, she said she would include the word 'ad' in tweets referencing Kellogg products. She said she did not share any information without appropriate disclosures.

Kellogg's said it used the council for academic insight and guidance. It said the experts contributed to most the materials they shared, and that they disclosed their affiliation in public engagements.

 Kellogg's didn't say that they paid the council members and spoon-fed them talking points about the benefits of cereal and breakfast, according to a copy of a contract and email exchanges obtained by The Associated Press

Kellogg's didn't say that they paid the council members and spoon-fed them talking points about the benefits of cereal and breakfast, according to a copy of a contract and email exchanges obtained by The Associated Press

But the company admitted its description of the experts as 'independent' could create confusion. It later told the AP it had been reviewing its nutrition work, and decided not to continue the council.

When Kellogg sent the council research it commissioned, Hayes and Klinger expressed enthusiasm and requested language to share the information.

'Would love tweets with URLs,' Hayes wrote. Hayes and Klinger posted the lines Kellogg provided verbatim. Hayes included the word 'advisor,' while Klinger included the word 'client'.

Kellogg's also supplied the experts with a 'toolkit' of tweets for a promotional event in New York, where a costumed Tony the Tiger character mingled with guests. When the council members received an email from someone they did not know criticizing their work with Kellogg, the company suggested a response for that, too.

The breakfast council was also a way to patrol for naysayers. After an advocacy group issued a report criticizing sugary cereals, Sarah Woodside, a Kellogg's employee, sent the council an email explaining why it was unfair and asked them to alert her if they noticed any discussions about it.

When two of the experts taught a class for dietitians on the 'science behind breakfast,' an introduction said they were members of Kellogg's Breakfast Council, then said they had no conflicts of interest. It said Kellogg funded the class, but had no input into its content.

Critics also say words such as 'advisor' can leave the impression that a health professional simply provides expertise to the company, rather than communicates publicly as part of a financial arrangement.

Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition at New York University, said health experts usually have good intentions when working with companies, and may not realize they're being used for their credibility.

One of the breakfast council's most notable achievements was publishing a paper defining a 'quality breakfast' in a nutrition journal. Kellogg touted the paper in its newsletter as being written by 'our independent nutrition experts.' Dietitians could earn continuing education credits from the publisher for taking a quiz about the paper.

Kellogg didn't describe its own role in overseeing editing and providing feedback, such as asking for the removal of a line saying a recommendation that added sugar be limited to 25 per cent of calories might be 'too high.'

The company said in a statement that its involvement should have been clear since the paper was a supplement. It noted an acknowledgement at the end of the paper that said the initial draft was written by an agency that represents Kellogg. 

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By Mathias Dillion 11/22/2016 10:58:00