President Obama’s nominee for surgeon general, whose job it is to help encourage Americans to get thinner and healthier, has been working part time as a scientific adviser to the fast-food giant that sells sandwiches like the Whopper and BK Triple Stacker.
Dr. Regina Benjamin, hailed by Mr. Obama for her efforts in running a health clinic in hurricane-ravaged rural Alabama, has been paid $10,000 since last year for serving on a scientific advisory board for Burger King, according to newly filed public financial disclosures.
The documents do not specify the scientific issues on which Dr. Benjamin advised the fast-food company, and her medical office in Bayou La Batre, Ala., declined a request for an interview. Burger King officials said Dr. Benjamin served on the company’s nutritional advisory panel, formed last summer as part of “ongoing efforts to promote balanced diets and active lifestyle choices.”
The Edelman public relations firm, hired by Burger King, recommended Dr. Benjamin and other specialists to serve on the panel, an Edelman spokeswoman said Wednesday.
Vicki Rivas-Vazquez, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health and Human Services, said Dr. Benjamin would resign her position from Burger King upon confirmation by the Senate. She also said Dr. Benjamin would recuse herself from any specific party matters involving Burger King for the next two years as part of the Obama administration’s ethics pledge.
“As the nation’s leading spokesperson on public health, she will continue to promote healthy eating and exercise,” she said.
“As third-party counselor bringing her expertise on public health on an advisory panel, she was advocating for food options that were lower in sodium and recommending that nutritional information appear on food packaging,” Ms. Rivas-Vazquez said of the nominee’s work on the Burger King panel.
Still, the existence of a financial relationship between a big fast-food company and a surgeon general nominee troubles Dr. Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University and author of “What to Eat.”
“Fast-food companies are not public health agencies; their job is to sell fast food - and the more, the better,” Dr. Nestle said. “For me, this would represent an impossible conflict of interest.
“I can’t speak for anyone else and I am aware of the counterargument that if you want companies to become more health conscious, you need to work from the inside. But in my experience, that argument does not hold.”
Dr. Stephen Cook, a child obesity specialist and assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Rochester, said he’s pleased that Dr. Benjamin disclosed the financial arrangement because “like any scientist, we should disclose our relationships.”
He also said it is difficult to draw any conclusions about Dr. Benjamin’s involvement with Burger King without knowing what she discussed with the company.
“We don’t know the content of those discussions,” he said. “Perhaps she was pushing them to make water or low-fat milk the default drink and lower the price of that compared to soda.”
Burger King, like McDonald’s and other big fast-food chains, has been under pressure to offer healthier fare in recent years amid concerns about the role of fast food in America’s obesity crisis. Public health advocates have long said fast food, while not the only factor, contributes to the nation’s obesity problem.
A recent study published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, a private nonprofit research organization, found that having a fast-food restaurant within a tenth of a mile of schools was associated with at least a 5.2 percent increase in obesity rates among ninth-graders.
In 2007, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sued Burger King in Washington, D.C., over its use of trans fats, but the company stopped using the product and a judge eventually threw out the lawsuit. The case is under appeal. Doctors say trans fats raise bad cholesterol levels and can increase the risk of heart problems. Many big fast-food chains have stopped using trans fats.
Among other moves in recent years, Burger King has been offering fresh-cut, skinless apple slices made to look like french fries at its locations across the country. The company in 2007 also said it was restricting ads for unhealthy food aimed at children.
Since her nomination, Dr. Benjamin has won support from both sides of the political aisle. Rep. Jo Bonner, Alabama Republican, said Mr. Obama “did himself and his administration proud” in picking Dr. Benjamin. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, called her “an excellent choice.”
Like Mr. Obama, members of Congress praised Dr. Benjamin for running a small rural clinic and rebuilding it after fire and hurricanes.
“When people couldn’t pay, she didn’t charge them,” Mr. Obama told reporters last month. “When the clinic wasn’t making money, she didn’t take a salary for herself.
“When Hurricane Georges destroyed the clinic in 1998, she made house calls to all her patients while it was rebuilt,” Mr. Obama said. “When Hurricane Katrina destroyed it again and left most of the town homeless, she mortgaged her house and maxed out her credit cards to rebuild that clinic for a second time.”
The Burger King advisory position is one of several outside jobs that Dr. Benjamin has held since last year, according to her disclosure form.
She also reported receiving more than $20,000 for serving on another advisory board at Nebraska-based ConAgra Foods, one of the country’s largest food producers with products such as David Sunflower Seeds, Crunch ‘n Munch, Healthy Choice and Chef Boyardee.
Dr. Benjamin reported more than $90,000 in earnings from her former role as chairman of the Federation of State Medical Boards and $8,000 for being an expert witness for the American Medical Association.
In addition, she received meeting and speaking fees ranging from a few hundred dollars to $7,000 for appearances with groups such as the California Hospital Association and Kaiser Family Foundation.