Category Archives: labelling

Big Food lobbying: tip of the iceberg exposed

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.

Big Food also lobbied extensively to oppose a proposed tax on soft drinks in Mexico. However, in that case, their lobbying could not prevent the implementation of the tax.

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.

The goal of food labelling is to help consumers make informed decisions. Franzj/Flickr

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).

The Conversation

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Should the food industry resign from the health department too

By Christopher Mayes, University of Sydney

Furore over links between Assistant Minister for Health Fiona Nash’s office and industry continues today with revelations that her former chief of staff is connected to the alcohol, as well as the food industry.

Alastair Furnival resigned last Friday over his role in shutting down a website about the health star rating food labelling system and it’s now been revealed that he played a key role in cancelling the funding of the Alcohol and other Drugs Council of Australia.

Furnival is co-owner of a lobbying firm that has represented major food companies opposed to the new front-of-pack labelling system. According to Fairfax, he and his wife also co-own a company, which, in turn, owns another that lobbied for the alcohol industry in 2012.

Such conflicts of interest place question marks over an individual’s capacity to judge a situation, perform a duty or make a decision in a fair and impartial manner. But what if a public institution, such as the Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) itself, has conflicted interests?

Furnival’s conflict of interest is worrying and should be thoroughly scrutinised. But the influence of the food and alcohol industries at the institutional-level precedes Furnival and will continue despite his resignation.

A growing closeness

The Australian Food and Grocery Council (AFGC) and the health department have developed close ties in recent years. Senior executives of the Council sat on the Dietary Guidelines Working Committee and the National Preventive Health Taskforce.

It co-funded a major nutritional health research survey with the health department in 2007, and is a prominent member of the Food and Health Dialogue.

At the 2009 AFGC annual dinner, Nicola Roxon, then-minister for health said these relationships weren’t cause for concern. Roxon welcomed the industry’s partnership with health prevention strategies and research projects, adding that she “saw no reason for people to fear industry engagement – quite the opposite”.

Perhaps. But when the aim of the food and grocery council is to “influence federal and state policies to ensure our members’ views are represented at the highest level”, legitimate questions arise about whether these partnerships conflict with the work of the health department.

Lawrence Lessig, professor of law and director of the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, warns that such partnerships can corrupt an institution by creating:

an economy of influence that illegitimately weakens the effectiveness of an institution especially by weakening the public trust of the institution.

So does the health department’s relationship with the food and grocery council weaken its effectiveness and public trust of the institution? For many, the answer is yes.

Keeping everyone happy?

In 2011, DoHA responded to the Blewett Review of food labelling law and policy by rejecting the major recommendation of a traffic-light front-of-pack labelling system. Journalists, public health researchers and consumer groups all believed the decision was due to the food and grocery council’s influence.

Catherine King, then-parliamentary secretary for health, defended the decision in an interview with the ABC. King explained the traffic-light scheme would “be a fairly big change for industry” and decided that “we need to get public health and industry together to try and…look at another system”.

This led to the Forum on Food Regulation, a collaborative process involving the AFGC, public health researchers and health department officials. The Forum’s objective was to develop a front-of-pack food labelling system that “must strike a balance between seeking to ensure good public health outcomes and ensuring a strong and profitable food industry”.

But are these objectives compatible? If a profitable industry undermines public health, is a balance feasible? And does the attempt to reach a balance weaken the effectiveness of the health department, the institution that arbitrates this relationship?

A profitable food industry is certainly in the nation’s economic interest. But the idea that it should be a primary concern for DoHA rubs against its more obvious objective of ensuring public health.

Individual conflicts of interest can cause significant damage – Furnival and those responsible for his appointment need to be fully investigated. But whether the increasing acceptance of public-private partnerships is the best way to ensure public goods needs critical attention. These partnerships have the potential to undermine public trust and weaken the effectiveness of vital public institutions.

The public needs to be confident that public officials and public institutions are acting in their interest. Recent events at the individual and institutional level imply that such confidence is misplaced.

The author would like to thank Associate Professor Jonathan H. Marks and Emeritus Professor Donald B. Thompson. This analysis partly draws on research undertaken as Postdoctoral Fellow on their collaborative project ( jointly funded by the Rock Ethics Institute at the Pennsylvania State University and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

The Conversation

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