Monday, March 03, 2008

Health Canada's Latest Debacle Part II

Today we'll be continuing our discussion of the current Health Canada consultation entitled, "Managing Health Claims for Foods in Canada: Towards a Modernized Framework" which is meant to set new rules as to what Big Food is allowed to print on fronts of packages to entice consumers to buy them.

So let me ask you, who do you think has the largest vested interest in what Health Canada ultimately recommends?

I'd love to tell you it was a highly organized establishment of health professionals and researchers whose aim it was to ensure that Canadians were given the best, most robust, evidence-based information possible to help with their dietary choices. You might think that such a group already existed and it was in fact Health Canada itself, but unfortunately you'd be sorely mistaken. While undoubtedly there are some outstanding folks over at Health Canada, somehow their contributions don't seem to make it to Health Canada's final products (witness our abysmal Food Guide).

Nope, the folks who care the most are of course Big Food who know that health claims on packages are remarkably effective at generating sales.

Knowing that, let's take a look at the current consultation process.

Right now they're in their, "multi-stakeholder" phase where they invite interested parties to give their opinions on what should and should not be included. In true Health Canada fashion, Big Food is formally invited to share their opinions. They're invited to share not just by way of letter or email submission (which I think would be entirely appropriate), they're invited to sit in on the consultation process itself and no doubt once there, they'll do everything in their power to spin tabled discussions to support their positions. That's an important distinction given that as noted in my post last Thursday, amazingly Health Canada is basically trying to decide whether or not to cater to Big Food's push for laxity in required evidence or instead to the pillar of any credible health claims system - evidence.

So let's say you as a fellow health care professional who cares about nutrition, or as a private citizen who's been reading this blog, let's say you wanted to put your two cents in. What would you have to do to be included in this consultation process?

Well, you'd have to read a dry 124 page document put out by Health Canada detailing the issue and then you'd either have to take a day off work to attend one of the regional consultation meetings or take the time to craft an email to send out to Health Canada.

In this hectic society, how many folks do you think would have the time to do either of those things?

I know if I took the time to attend a consultation, as someone who was self-employed, that'd be a day where I wasn't getting paid, and as a physician, a day where I wasn't able to help patients.

If you're not self-employed, I doubt many bosses would think that attending a Health Canada consultation on food labeling was a decent excuse to take off work.

Nope, not many private citizens are going to attend these meetings.

So who is going to attend these meetings? The folks paid to do so. Big Food, and a smattering of folks from public interest groups like the Centre for Science in the Public Interest and from various arms of government.

Big Food however will not only pay its employees to attend, it'll also pay for research into how to spin data to support its aims and pay to teach its employees how to best assert themselves and their views at their "multi-stakeholder" tables.

Basically at the end of the day, Big Food is going to spend a small fortune, training and equipping a legion of employees from coast to coast to inculcate and represent at all of the various consultation sites. Consequently, an average citizen, an independent health professional, or even a well-intentioned governmental health care researcher is simply not going to have the resources or the sheer manpower that Big Food has at their disposal.

Is that going to ultimately affect the recommendations that arise from the consultation process?

Of course.

By including Big Food in the consultation process, just as with the Food Guide, Health Canada has once again stacked the deck in Big Food's favour. As a result, Health Canada is likely going to shortchange the Canadian public by ultimately setting policies where the overrepresented interests of Big Food unfortunately end up supplanting best evidence.

Stay tuned tomorrow to hear a first hand account of how Big Food controls the consultations.