Olga Raz, a well-known dietician who has told consumers not to be overly concerned about the salmonella bacteria in their food, has also served as a paid spokeswoman for Unilever Israel, whose breakfast cereals sparked the scare.
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Raz, a dietitian at Tel Aviv’s Ichilov Hospital and a senior lecturer in Ariel University’s nutrition department who has had popular radio programs, made two public appearances as a paid spokeswoman for Unilever and its Telma cereals in the last two years.
In an interview this week to the ultra-Orthodox newspaper Yated Neeman, she said, “There’s no need to panic ... bacteria have always been there and always will be. ... It’s true mistakes happen but big food plants are reporting and inspecting all the time. The real problem is restaurants, delicatessens and cafes, which are unsupervised and don’t test.”
Ariel University sent out a backgrounder to the media a week ago, citing Raz as an authority and a member of the faculty, without mentioning her Unilever connection.
In the Ariel backgrounder Raz also discounted the salmonella problem
But three months ago, Raz appeared at a news conference called to highlight the company’s new policy of proving more details about the sugar content in its cereal and said she took an active role in formulating the new policy.
A year ago, Raz’s endorsement with her picture and a personal statement appeared on boxes of Telma’s Alufim Squares cereal. “A serving of Alufim Squares with milk is a proper substitute for a slice of whole wheat bread with a spread that children will be happy to eat any time of the day,” she wrote.
In an interview with TheMarker, Raz said her relationship with Unilever, which goes back several years, doesn’t disqualify her to speak on salmonella or other issues affecting the company.
“I didn’t think about it then and even now I still don’t think it’s a problem. I only say things that are accepted by professionals in the matter of salmonella. It’s not connected with my appearance at a Unilever press conference and any of my other work with them,” she said.
Asked how much she was paid for her work with Unilever, Raz said she could immediately recall. But industry sources said that well-known dietitians and others regarded as “health opinion leaders” can earn tens of thousands of shekels for each assignment.
“I didn’t defend the big food companies but called people’s attention to the fact the recalls are a positive thing that trustworthy companies do when there is a defect. Compare that with restaurants, for example, that never do recalls,” Raz said.
Food industry sources said Raz isn’t the only dietitian or similar professional retained by big food makers to help promote their products.
They said the phenomenon would probably grow as the salmonella and other health issues with Israeli food that have surfaced in recent weeks are causing food makers to focus on the healthfulness of their products.
“There are more than a few dietitians who are interviewed in the media as authoritative while at the same time are getting a lot of money from big food companies,” said one executive, who asked not to be named.