By Gary Sacks, Deakin University
The influence of the food lobby has come into the public spotlight over the past week, with revelations that Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s chief-of-staff, Alastair Furnival, has strong links to the food industry. Furnival previously worked as a lobbyist for several food companies and is the co-owner of a firm that has represented the food industry.
The controversy came as Nash personally intervened to have health department staff withdraw a website launching a new government-approved health star rating food labelling system for Australia. Nash has since been accused of breaching ministerial standards for failing to declare Furnival’s conflict. And Furnival resigned from his chief-of-staff position on Friday.
This incident has exposed one of the many ways in which powerful food companies exert their influence over government policy. From a public health perspective, the major concern is that this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Big Food tactics
Big Food lobbying to avoid government regulations for improved food labelling is not new.
In Europe, the food industry reportedly spent a staggering €1 billion successfully lobbying the European parliament to reject a traffic-light food labelling scheme. The scheme, heavily favoured by public health advocates internationally, uses colours to indicate the relative healthiness of foods. The fear for the food industry is that by putting red labels on their products, sales would decline.
Direct lobbying is just one of several tactics that food companies use to shape the regulatory environment and public perception in their favour.
In the media, food companies typically place the responsibility for obesity on individual choices, rather than environmental or corporate influences. They also portray government actions to regulate food environments as interference in personal liberties and free choice.
Food companies frequently publicise their contributions to worthy causes, such as children’s charities. This seeks to cast members of the food industry as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public. However, some of these charities have been heavily criticised as being predominantly marketing ploys that distract attention from harmful business practices.
The food industry also funds research that serves to confuse the evidence and keeps the public in doubt. They also set up front groups to lobby on their behalf. And they promise self-regulation in efforts to avoid government regulation, despite the demonstrated failure of self-regulation for improving food environments.
These Big Food tactics closely mirror those used by tobacco companies.
Flow of unhealthy food
The corporate sector has been very successful in shaping a regulatory environment that favours market liberalisation and free trade.
For food companies, this enables them to supply and heavily promote a high volume and enormous range of products, many of which are unhealthy. This increased supply of cheap, tasty, energy-dense food has been the main driver of population weight gain over the last three decades.
Despite strong evidence that many very affordable and cost-effective government interventions – such as improvements to food labelling, restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy food and drinks to children, and taxes on unhealthy foods (such as soft drinks) – are likely to be highly effective in improving population health outcomes, very few of these policies have been implemented globally.
A major reason for this lack of action is that governments have faced strong pressure from food companies to maintain the status quo.
Corporate efforts to influence policy are a serious worry for public health. There’s a clear conflict of interest between big food companies seeking to profit from sales of their products (many of which are unhealthy) and public-interest efforts to improve population nutrition.
Indeed, the Director General of the World Health Organisation, Dr Margaret Chan, recently referred to the lobby forces of Big Food as one of the biggest challenge that countries face as they try to reduce obesity and diet-related diseases.
Towards informed choices
In the case of current efforts to improve food labelling in Australia, the
goal of the new labelling scheme is to assist consumers to make informed dietary choices and, in so doing, help improve the health of the population.
The government has engaged heavily with public health experts, consumer groups and the food industry throughout the policy development process. And Australia’s food and health ministers have all agreed to support the new labelling system.
However, it appears the food industry’s recent efforts to undermine the scheme are having some effect.
Hopefully, the enormous media attention that has accompanied the government’s decision to take down the new food labelling website will enourage the government to follow through on their previous commitments to support the scheme.
But more broadly, we need tighter rules around government engagement with the private sector, and closer monitoring of the tactics used by Big Food to influence policy. This can generate evidence that can be used to hold food companies and governments to account for their roles in obesity prevention.
Gary Sacks receives funding from the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC).