North Carolina Bill to Eliminate Nutrition Board Stalls

Published March 15, 2013

An effort to eliminate a North Carolina board that threatened a blogger for sharing dietary advice without a government license fell short of passage in the state legislature.

The original version of a proposed state law would have restored blogger Steve Cooksey’s freedom of speech by allowing him to continue writing about his diet and recommending it to others, abolishing the North Carolina Board of Dietetics/Nutrition that threatened to send a him to jail for “dispensing” nutritional advice without a license.

The board was one of dozens of “wasteful” boards and commissions state legislators planned to eliminate, identified in a bill whose purpose was to “reduce the size of government” and strengthen free enterprise. But at the last minute the bill sponsors changed their minds and decided to spare the nutrition board.

Bill sponsor Sen. Bill Rabon offered an amendment on the Senate floor February 6 that preserved the state’s law requiring a person to have a license before sharing an opinion about what people should eat. Instead, Rabon proposed firing the seven current board members and replacing them with five new ones.

Ruth Ann Foster, who is working on her doctorate in holistic nutrition, pushed for the Dietetics Board to be included among the bureaucracies the bill eliminates, because her degree will be useless as long as Board members get to decide who gets to speak about nutrition and who doesn’t.  

Foster says she believes the NC Board of Dietetics caught wind of the proposal to eliminate the state’s nutrition licensing law and pressured bill sponsors into dropping it.

Free Speech Case

Cooksey’s battle with the NC Dietetics Board is currently the subject of a major free speech case, which the nonprofit libertarian law firm Institute for Justice plans to appeal all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

Cooksey’s lawyer, Jeff Rowes, a senior attorney at the Institute, said the bill in its original form would’ve eliminated the need for the lawsuit, as the defendant—the North Carolina Board of Dietetics—would have ceased to exist.

“The legislature should move forward with the elimination of the dietitian-licensing scheme, but barring that, getting rid of the current board members, who were involved in the suppression of Steve Cooksey’s dietary advice, is still a good start,” Rowes said.

Unless the original version of the bill is restored and passed, the Institute for Justice plans to proceed with Cooksey’s First Amendment case, which is now pending before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, Rowes said.

Surprise Flip-Flop

Neither Sen. Bill Rabon nor Sen. Tom Apodaca—both primary sponsors of the bill—would return calls or emails asking why they flip-flopped on their own proposal.

Foster said lawmakers were initially “keen on” her proposal to do away with the Dietetics Board when she met with them in December, as it fit into their larger mission of eliminating unnecessary boards and promoting free trade. She obtained an email leaked from a registered dietician sympathetic to her cause that she believes explains their change of heart.

When the Dietetics Board learned they had been included on the list of commissions to be terminated, they sent out an email labeled “urgent” warning all licensed nutritionists in the state to contact their legislators. Apodaca even mentioned getting a call from his nutritionist that morning as he expressed his support for the amendment to the bill on the Senate floor.

Foster said there is still time for the bill to be amended back to its original form in the state House. She noted Michigan is also considering eliminating its nutrition board.

Dietetics Association Opposition

The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics—formerly and more commonly known as the American Dietetics Association—has lobbied for mandatory licensure of nutrition-related occupations in all 50 states and has been successful in about 35. In North Carolina, those wanting to “practice” nutrition must take ADA-sponsored academic courses and pass an ADA exam to be licensed.

“In other words,” Foster said, “no one can offer any advice about nutrition to anyone in the state—friends and family included—unless they have been educated by a national trade group that is funded by dozens of processed food manufacturers.”

In a letter asking state senators to eliminate the Dietetics Board and the licensing law that keeps her silent and unemployed, Foster explained the law enabled dieticians sponsored by junk food companies to monopolize the occupation of nutrition and the information North Carolinians are allowed to access.

While working on her doctorate in nutrition, she said she was “shocked” to learn she would not be able to practice her trade in the state or in any way identify herself as a nutritionist without this license.

“Citizens in states where the ADA has gotten licensing laws passed are deprived of access to alternative theories about diet,” Foster said.

As members of the ADA, registered dieticians all parrot the same message: “carbs are good, grains are good, sugar is fine, eat less fat,” said former diabetic Cooksey, who learned to control his insulin levels with exactly the opposite diet.

“Diabetes patients are entitled to a second opinion,” Cooksey said, “and they’re not going to get it from an ADA-registered dietician.”