Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Health Canada's Latest Debacle Part III

So today, thanks to a concerned and anonymous tipster, I'm going to take you on a tour of a typical table in Health Canada's latest consultation process involving putting health claims on fronts of packages.

Here's their description of the goings on at this Kangaroo consultation (edited only to remove identifying information),

"I recently attended Health Canada's stakeholder consultation workshops as they traveled around the country. I found out that industry representatives traveled along too to ensure that their voice as stakeholders was consistently heard. Health Canada wanted to know whether it would be a good idea to allow health claims substantiated by lower levels of evidence.

I personally think that health claims are more a marketing tool than a consumer education tool and lower levels of evidence will result in even more confusion for Canadians, who already seem to be confused about nutrition.

After you arrive, you are placed at a table and your table mates are pre-chosen for you, presumably so there is a wider variety of representatives at each table than might randomly occur. After hearing the presentations from Health Canada, you are asked to discuss a very specific question at your table.

One individual from each table (the group reporter) captures the responses on paper, as does a Health Canada staffer, and then this is reported to the larger group. The reporter tries to capture for the larger group what was said by putting it into their own words. If the reporter isn't equitable in capturing your opinion (which is likely given the time constraints), then it doesn't get captured. What this process does, in the end, is whittle away the issues to a few generic type bullet points.

I was shocked to find out that all opinions are not equally captured, and some are overtly ignored. Only those that represent the consensus at the table are. In other words, if your opinion is not mainstream, it isn't really captured. What is the point of having a diverse group of people come together?

I am bothered by the fact that: 1) The questions are so narrow that the answers are almost as well 2) The process captures only what the mainstream agrees on 3) Discussion about whether health claims actually do what they were intended to do - help Canadians eat better, is not addressed. 4)The most frequent responses carry the weight and the food industry is present at every meeting, not the average person.
And that's actually not even the meatiest parts.

Unfortunately my tipster is very concerned about remaining anonymous and therefore some of the more shocking bits had to be removed so as to ensure no identifiable information remained.

So to summarize, if your view differs from the majority at the table it will be as if you weren't even there as your view will not make it back to the official consultation record. And if the majority at the table represents Big Food, can you guess what the outcomes of these consultations will be?


Well I'll tell you.

Health Canada will be able (just as it did with the Food Guide) to point at a poorly designed consultation process as proof that all views were heard, while Big Food will be allowed to ensure the best possible chance to have their positions adopted as a reflection of what the consultation process itself suggested was consensus.

Stay tuned tomorrow to hear about what you can do to make yourself heard (though after watching how Health Canada operates, unfortunately I'm not sure how much good it'll do).