CORRECTION and apology to breastfeeding researcher Dr. Ronald Kleinman

I was wrong concept on notebook

Last month I wrote a piece condemning Harvard breastfeeding safety researcher Dr. Ronald Kleinman for failure to disclose financial conflicts of interest. My piece was based on an expose featured in WomensENews.

This morning I received an email from Harry Orf, PhD, Senior Vice President for Research, and Research Integrity Officer Massachusetts General Hospital informing me that I disseminated incorrect information. Much to my regret I repeated false claims and mischaracterized the situation. For that I am deeply sorry and want to correct the record as soon as I can.

Was this character assassination of a respected breastfeeding safety researcher by the breastfeeding industry?

Orf shared with me the letter he sent to the reporter and her editor detailing the falsehoods:

  • The premise in your headline and lead paragraph that Dr. Kleinman has come under scrutiny is flawed. He has not come under scrutiny. Harvard received one complaint, which was reviewed, as we are obligated to do. Our assessment identified no problems or concerns – nothing.
  • In response to your question about whether industry-funded research influences outcomes, Dr. Kleinman said, “There certainly have been some high-profile examples of industry-initiated studies that have not had the appropriate firewalls between the funder and the investigators, and the influence of the funder is obvious.” Your article, however, twisted his comment around, saying, “Kleinman believes ‘appropriate firewalls’ exist, even in the face of other high-profile examples where industry influence is present.” This is a total mischaracterization of his response.
  • You wrote that Dr. Kleinman has financial connections to juice manufacturers. This is not true, yet you included it even though Dr. Kleinman told you he has never received compensation nor had a relationship with the Fruit Juice Association. Perhaps you should have checked with the association directly if you didn’t accept Dr. Kleinman’s response.
  • You wrote, “Harvard’s review did not find any official fault, but due to recent investigative reporting by the New York Times and ProPublica, light has been shed on the conflict of interest for scientists in all fields.” Dr. Kleinman was not part of the NYT/ProPublica piece, and attempting to draw such a connection is grossly misrepresentative.
  • You repeatedly suggested that Dr. Kleinman has published articles critical of breastfeeding. Dr. Kleinman has been a consistent and strong supporter of breastfeeding for 40 years and made this clear in his responses to you.
  • The story alleged Dr. Kleinman has had an ongoing relationship with Nestle. Dr. Kleinman explained in his response that the relationship with Nestle involved him co-chairing two international symposia – one more than 20 years ago, the other more than 10 years ago. These were two discrete interactions with no relationship between Dr. Kleinman and Nestle since.
  • Similarly, your story said Dr. Kleinman is a consultant for Burger King. As he noted in his response, Dr. Kleinman attended a one-day advisory meeting more than 10 years ago aimed at improving the nutritional profile of the meals Burger King serves. This advisory group included a future surgeon general and other prominent scientists and nutritionists from across the country. He has had no further interaction with Burger King since that single meeting.
  • Your story suggested that Dr. Kleinman’s engagement as a member of the Alliance for Potato Research and Education led to a paper promoting potato consumption among children. In fact, nothing in the cited review paper, which was about vegetable consumption and young children, promoted potatoes or concluded that children should eat more potatoes. In addition, Dr. Kleinman had explained that his role as an advisory committee member involved evaluating research proposals seeking funding from the APRE. He himself never received research funding from the organization.
  • You said Dr. Kleinman was on the board for US Dietary Guidelines 2010. He was not and never has been.(my emphases)

How could the reporter have gotten it so wrong? Where did she come up with these accusations if not from the Harvard investigation?

Let’s look at whom she quotes: all three earn their money from the billion dollar breastfeeding industry.

  • Kimberly Seals Allers, author of The Big Letdown—How Medicine, Big Business and Feminism Undermine Breastfeeding
  • Lucy Sullivan,executive director of 1,000 Days
  • Trish MacEnroe, Executive Director of Baby-Friendly USA

Another leading avatar of the breastfeeding industry, Melissa Bartick, MD, apparently filed the original complaint.

I also filed a complaint about Kleinman’s conflicts of interest to the Harvard Medical School Office of Academic and Research Integrity in December 2017, which was never addressed.

She wrote that in November 2018 and it, too, appears to be a mischaracterization. The complaint WAS addressed and it was dismissed as unsubstantiated.

What happened here? The final paragraph in Orf’s letter to the reporter and editor suggests a possibility:

Finally, Ms. Gale, at the end of your article, Women’s eNews acknowledges that this investigative series has been funded by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. It has come to my attention that the Kellogg Foundation also provides significant support for the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative and funds research of some of the individuals who have led the campaign to discredit Dr. Kleinman. Given that the focus of your article is on appropriate disclosure of conflicts, particularly around the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, it is surprising to me that Women’s eNews would not require that these relationships be fully disclosed to its readers.

Was this character assassination of a respected breastfeeding safety researcher by the breastfeeding industry? Was this an attempt by breastfeeding professionals to preserve the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative at the expense of the health of babies and the wellbeing of mothers? We need more information to know for sure but it certainly looks like it.

I want to offer a heartfelt apology to Dr. Kleinman for my original piece. I repeated misinformation and for that I am deeply sorry. I’ll be waiting for Bartick, Seals Allers, Sullivan and McEnroe to do the same.