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Trevor Hancock: Corporate lobbying needs to be kept out of the food system

The process of revising the Canada Food Guide shows that prohibiting or severely restricting private-sector lobbying has benefits for the health of people and the planet
In an unusual and effective step, restrictions on private-sector lobbying were put in place during the revision of the Canada Food Guide to minimize potential conflict of interest, writes Trevor Hancock. VANESSA LORING VIA PEXELS

In my last three columns, I looked at the health and economic burden of unhealthy diets, the role of large parts of the food industry in producing and marketing an unhealthy diet, and the ways in which our current food system harms the planet.

Clearly this has to stop, and you would think that governments would take a much stronger line than they do in requiring the food industry to put people and planet first.

However, governments seem reluctant to act. In part, that is because the food industry is at best a challenging “partner,” often actively opposed to changes that would make our food system healthier for people and the planet.

Moreover, the industry spends a lot of money lobbying governments to protect itself and promote its own interests.

Indeed, a study by researchers at the Université de Montréal published in December 2023 in the Public Health Agency of Canada’s own journal noted extensive evidence that “the bio-food industry interferes with the development of public food policies worldwide through corporate political activity.”

Such activity “is defined as the attempts by corporate actors to shape public policy in ways that would protect or expand their markets or favour their industry’s interests.”

Note that this is the industry’s interest, which should not be confused with the public interest. Indeed, they add, the World Health Organization has expressed concern that such activity “may limit governments’ abilities to develop and maintain effective public health policies.”

For example, a 2022 article in the journal ­Globalization and Health looked at lobbying in relation to Health Canada’s Healthy Eating Strategy, from September 2016 to January 2021.

At the time, Health Canada was proposing “revisions to Canada’s Food Guide, changes to the nutritional ­quality of the food supply, front-of-pack nutrition labelling and restrictions on food marketing to children.”

Using data from Canada’s Registry of Lobbyists, the researchers found the vast majority — around 90 per cent — of registered lobbyists and the corporations and organizations they represented had ties to industry, meaning the public interest barely got a word in edgeways, suggesting “a strategic advantage of industry stakeholders in influencing Canadian policymakers.”

The good news is that, just for once, and unusually, the minister put in place restrictions on lobbying ­“during the revision of the Food Guide to minimize potential conflict of interest.”

As a result, staff at the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion “did not interact with stakeholders from the food and beverage industry during the development process.”

So effective was this, in fact, that the Globe and Mail reported in 2017 that the industry tried an end run by asking Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada to lobby Health Canada for them.

Indeed, the Université de Montréal study noted, the Dairy Farmers of Canada even went so far as to ask the prime minister to “direct the Minister of Health to do her homework” when their industry-funded research findings were contradicted by independent research, while the Turkey Farmers of Canada wanted environmental impacts of food removed from consideration.

The good news is that in the case of the revisions to Canada’s Food Guide, which was “the only initiative with extensive safeguards during the policy ­development process,” there were “significant changes and successful implementation.”

The bad news is that “the policy which received the greatest amount of attention from industry (i.e., marketing to children) resulted in failed policy implementation.” It died in the Senate in 2019.

The lesson we should learn: Prohibit or severely restrict private-sector lobbying — which, let’s face it, is just a form of buying influence.

Doubtless, we will hear squeals from the corporate world that their rights are being infringed, and they will invoke the wholly ridiculous notion — although apparently embedded in Canadian law, according to Innovation, Science and Economic Development ­Canada — that the corporation “has the same rights and obligations as a natural person under Canadian law.”

But what these and other studies make clear is that it is the rights of Canadians to health and a healthy environment that are being trampled by many parts of the corporate and commercial world.

It is way past time government stopped protecting corporations and stood up for the health of people and the planet.

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Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy.