THE influence of the food lobby is in the spotlight, with revelations that Assistant Health Minister Fiona Nash’s chief-of-staff, Alastair Furnival, has strong links to the food industry. He previously worked as a lobbyist for several food companies and is co-owner of a firm that has represented the food industry.
The controversy came as Nash intervened to have health department staff withdraw a website launching a new government-approved health star rating food labelling system. Nash has since been accused of breaching ministerial standards for failing to declare Furnival’s conflict. And Furnival resigned.
This has exposed one way in which powerful food companies exert their influence over government policy. The concern is that this is the tip of the iceberg.
Big Food lobbying to avoid government regulations for improved labelling is not new.
In Europe, the food industry reportedly spent €1billion successfully lobbying the European Parliament to reject a traffic-light food labelling scheme.
The fear 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, they were not successful.
In the media, food companies typically place the responsibility for obesity on individual choices, rather than environmental or corporate influences. They portray government actions to regulate food as interference in free choice.
They frequently publicise their contributions to worthy causes and fund research that serves to confuse the evidence. They set up front groups to lobby on their behalf. And they promise self-regulation.
These tactics closely mirror those used by tobacco companies.
A regulatory environment that favours market liberalisation and free trade enables food companies to supply and promote a high volume and range of products, many of which are unhealthy.
This supply of cheap, tasty, energy-dense food has been the main driver of population weight gain.
Despite 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 – are likely to improve population health, very few have been implemented globally.
Governments have faced strong pressure from food companies.
Corporate efforts to influence policy are a serious worry for public health. There’s a conflict of interest between big food companies seeking to profit from sales of their products 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 challenges that countries face as they try to reduce obesity and diet-related diseases.
In the case of current efforts to improve food labelling in Australia, the goal of the new scheme is to assist consumers make informed food choices.
The government has engaged with public health experts, consumer groups and the food industry throughout the process. And Australia’s food and health ministers have all agreed to support the new labelling system.
But it appears the food industry’s recent efforts to undermine the scheme are having some effect.
Hopefully, the media attention following the government’s decision to take down the new food labelling website will encourage 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.
Gary Sacks is senior research fellow at the WHO Collaborating Centre for Obesity Prevention, Deakin University. This is an edited version of a piece written for The Conversation.