While there are indeed many health NGOs who are comfortable partnering with the food industry (usually to fundraise), there are others who feel that this is an untenable conflict. To that end, Dr. Norm Campbell, the CIHR Canadian Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control, has been calling on Canada's most prominent health related NGOs and asking them to pledge their support for increased transparency and safeguards that would limit industry's financial interests from influencing Canadian food policy. When he shared his message with me, I asked him if I might share it with you.Conflicts of interest between the food industry and the health of Canadian abound. These conflicts create a toxic food environment for Canadians in which there are no national level policies that effectively ensure equitable access to healthy, affordable food. Food company representatives and people whose work is funded by food companies dominate the federal government’s Food Expert Advisory Committee (FEAC). This ensures that FEAC advice to the government - a chief source of stakeholder feedback - comes from an industry perspective more so than a public health one.
The food industry is increasingly global and is valued at 4 trillion dollars per year. It flexes its economic might and global reach to influence politicians and bureaucrats and to undermine attempts at implementing healthy food policy. Transparent monitoring and reporting of conflicts of interest between businesses and government is virtually non-existent in Canada.
Much so-called scientific research is funded by food companies. One extensive review found that research results where the investigators had ties to the food industry were more than seven times as likely to support an industry perspective, and in no studies, did harm to the food industry’s interests. This is not transparent to most people. Even research consulting companies explicitly catering to the food industry feature publications where researchers do not declare any potential conflicts of interest. Many in the scientific community, including those who have conducted industry-funded research, consider this to be flatly unethical.
Research by those with undeclared interests often opposes healthy public policy proposals relating to important challenges like dietary salt. Even more disgraceful is food industry support of health care professional organizations where the conflict has the potential to influence education programs and policy advice from professionals trusted by the public and governments. Many dietitian and nutritional organizations in Canada and globally receive significant funding from the processed food industry. This helps to explain decades-long advocacy apathy from these organizations when it comes to healthy food policies, and a concurrent trend that has seen unhealthy diets become the leading risk for death and disability in Canada.
At a personal level, I was deeply disturbed by two recent incidents. First, a disease-related health charity raised millions of dollars by promoting the purchase of hamburgers from a fast food restaurant, and having a portion of the proceeds come back to benefit the health charity. This promotion was allowed to proceed even though people living with the disease in question are advised to eat a healthy diet because a high sodium diet from foods like hamburgers are suspected to speed the disease’s progression. This same health charity has also refused to sign a consensus statement of health and scientific organizations calling for limitations of conflicts of interest with the food industry that which will be released in the coming weeks.
In the other example, the World Heart Federation partnered with the Canadian Academy of Health Sciences to host a food policy meeting sponsored by food companies. After confirming a roster of speakers who uniformly stood against best-practice public policies that would reduce dietary salt, the chair of the meeting organizing committee wrote an editorial suggesting that we should drop the current evidence based targets for reducing dietary salt and make incremental changes instead. The World Heart Federation then refused to join an international consortium to develop recommendations for setting quality research standards for dietary sodium and to review the evidence on dietary salt. Rather the World Heart Federation formed its own committee to review evidence, co-chaired by a former consultant / advisor and paid witness for the Salt Institute ( an umbrella group for the salt industry) and a tobacco company (claiming it was not proven that tobacco caused cancer), respectively.
While the connection between industry funding and public health policy inaction is obscured by layers and layers of hidden influence, in my opinion these persistent conflicts of interest and the lack of transparency around them reduces the credibility of the sponsoring organizations, health care professionals and researchers involved. Much more can and should be done to prevent financial interests from undermining the health of Canadians. The Canadian public has a right to demand transparency, monitoring and evaluation of conflicts of interest with the food industry as well as safeguards that limit the influence of financial interests on public policy.
You can pledge your support here for the implementation of these and other healthy public policy best practices by Canada’s next government.
Norm Campbell MD FRCPC
Dr. Campbell is currently:
- The HSF CIHR Chair in Hypertension Prevention and Control (2011-2016).
- Chair of the Canadian Hypertension Advisory Committee (of national health and scientific organizations) to lead the collaborative nongovernmental effort to prevent and control hypertension (2012-2016).
- President of the World Hypertension League (2013-2015).
- Co-Chair of the Pan American Health Organization / World Health Organization Technical Advisory Group on Cardiovascular Disease Prevention through Dietary Salt Reduction (2012-2015)
- Co-chair of the Vascular Risk Reduction program of the Alberta Health Services Strategic Clinical Networks.
- Member of the World Health Organization Nutrition Advisory Group, Non Communicable Disease, (NutNCD group 2012-2016).