Sunday, November 12, 2006

Big Food Has a Seat

On January 20th, 2004 Health Canada kicked off the start to the 1992 Food Guide's revision with what I can gather from the photo on the left (from Health Canada's January 20th Meeting Page), a gala affair. It was in fact a by-invitation only meeting of "stakeholders".

Want to know who was invited?

A full 1/3 of all of the attendees represented the Food Industry, including:

  • Brewers of Canada
  • The Canadian Meat Council
  • The Canadian Sugar Institute
  • The Canola Council of Canada
  • The Confectionery Manufacturers Association of Canada
  • Dairy Farmers of Canada
  • Edible Oil Foods Association of Canada
  • Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada
  • Kellogg Canada Inc.
  • Refreshments Canada
  • Weston Bakeries Limited
  • The Beef Information Centre

  • [November 4th, 2007 - interesting, Health Canada has removed the list that was once online detailing the various "stakeholders", and in its place is the following paragraph:
    "Invitees to the meeting included representatives from a broad range of national stakeholder organizations, such as health professional associations, non-governmental organizations, consumer groups, universities/academics, food industry and trade organizations and federal, provincial, territorial and municipal governments. Approximately 200 stakeholders were invited; about 110 stakeholders attended the meeting."
    It's a shame I didn't save the list - I'll scrounge through my records and see if I printed it up)]

    Now you might say to me that I'm being overly critical, that indeed the Food Industry are stakeholders and therefore should be told about the fact that the Food Guide's about to be revised. Surely the Food Guide is big business for the Food Industry. If the Guide changes its recommendations on what we should be eating, over time that will certainly be reflected in what Canadians purchase. That reflection might well enter into tens or hundreds of millions of dollars of either lost or earned revenues to the industries involved.

    Fair enough, Big Food needs to know that the Food Guide's being revised....but do they really need to be involved in the revisions?

    Shouldn't Health Canada's Food Guide's recommendations solely reflect what science and medicine understand to be the healthiest way for us to eat?

    Shouldn't Big Food simply be advised as to what the recommendations are going to be?

    Health Canada doesn't think so.

    The Food Guide Advisory Committee, one of the top tiers of the revision process is a 12 member Committee where a full 25% of the members purely serve Big Food.

    Here are some alternatives to the Big Food members' biographies on Health Canada's website:

    1. Sydney Massey is the Nutrition Education Manager and Spokesperson for the BC Dairy Foundation.

      The same BC Dairy Foundation whose homepage right now has a link to a section entitled,
      "Don't tell Mom, but Chocolate Milk is good for you".
      The same BC Dairy Foundation whose stated mandate is,
      "BC Dairy Foundation (BCDF) is a not-for-profit organization with the mandate of increasing consumption of milk in British Columbia".
      The same Sydney Massey who when interviewed by the CBC regarding the meta-analysis that concluded that increased milk consumption was linked to increased risk of ovarian cancer said,
      "Well, you can show an association between wearing skirts and breast cancer, but it doesn't mean that wearing skirts causes breast cancer. It just means that there's something here we have to take a look at."
      Yeah, that darned International Journal of Cancer. Who do they think they are summarizing over 21 different studies to come to their conclusion.

      Do you think she can be objective about the Dairy recommendations of the Guide?

    2. Sean McPhee leads an industry group representing 95,000 oilseed growers, oilseed producers and makers of oilseed-based food products. This is the same Sean McPhee who has his own website and company Sean McPhee & Associates. Here's what his website says he and his company are really good at,
      "Sean McPhee & Associates has an accomplished track record in using communication skills to help clients successfully manage issues that impact their business including genetic modification of foods, workers’ compensation reform, endocrine modulating substances, emerging environmental imperatives such as global warming, and international global trade negotiations. We have successfully capitalized on external issue developments, protecting market share and enabling clients to include astute issue management strategies into business plans."
      According to his website, it's not just the oilseed growers that Health Canada mentions that he represents. From his homepage,
      "We have helped clients successfully launch products in cutting edge new categories, build public support for high profile regulatory challenges, negotiate complex issues like global warming and genetically modified organisms, and manage communications for a number of sensitive mergers, acquisitions and divestitures.

      Our client experience includes consumer packaged goods, trade associations, financial services, professional services, food and beverage, biotechnology, chemicals, not-for-profit, environment and government."
      Sean is the Executive Director of the Vegetable Oil Industry of Canada (VOIC). They put out a press release expressing their joy when Sean was appointed to the advisory board. In that press release VOIC's position on the revisions is made very clear,
      "VOIC is calling on Health Canada to acknowledge and place a greater emphasis in Canada’s Food Guide on (a) promoting consumption of healthy plant-based fats which include liquid vegetable oils such as canola, soy, sunflower, corn, olive and peanut and (b) the inclusion of additional foods high in calcium such as fortified soy beverage and fortified margarine, a product that should be available to consumers."
      Does he sound objective to you?

    3. Carolyn O'Brien at the time of her appointment to the advisory committee was the Director of Scientific & Regulatory Affairs at the Food and Consumer Products Manufacturers of Canada (FCPMC).

      According to the FCPMC, they are,
      "the largest industry association in Canada representing the food and consumer products industry."
      Interestingly on the FCPMC website, if you want to have a look at their Public Policy Initiatives you get asked for a username and password. Guess their public policy initiatives aren't meant to be seen by the public.

      I found their mandate on Agriculture and Agri-Foods Canada's website,
      "To enhance growth and competitiveness of the food and consumer products manufacturing industry."
      Wanna know who she represented? To see the complete list of FCPMC member companies, scroll to page 5 of the linked pdf. Highlights include Cadbury, Pepsi-Cola, The Canadian Salt Company, Coca-Cola, Con-Agra (KFC), Frito Lay, Breyers, Heinz, Humpty Dumpty Snack Foods, McCain, Minute Maid, Nestle, Redpath Sugars, Sara Lee and Voortman Cookies.

      I suppose it is safe to assume that Ms. O'Brien was very pleased that Health Canada wanted to ensure that Frito Lay and Coca-Cola have representation on the Food Guide Advisory Committee....after all, they are member corporations...umm, I mean"stakeholders".
    In fact, the Food Industry is a stakeholder, but I think that its role as a stakeholder is to be informed of the decisions that Health Canada makes, not inform the decisions themselves.

    I certainly can't blame the Food Industry for accepting their bizarre invitations to the table, nor would I blame them for a moment if during their involvement, they tried to protect their products and promote their sales - that's what industry does.

    I can however blame Health Canada.

    Canada's Food Guide is for all intents and purposes, something that we would call in medicine, a clinical practice guideline. It's supposed to be our best recommendations as to what people should eat to protect or improve their health. In order to ensure that bias doesn't enter into the development of a clinical practice guideline, the folks drawing up the guidelines must be free from conflict of interest lest their conflicts of interest impact on their recommendations.

    I can't think of anyone with greater conflicts of interest in the creation of a Food Guide than the folks who sell and promote the food.

    There is an irrefutable body of evidence that has taught us that what we eat affects how long we live and how well we live, and while I empathize with those companies where new recommendations may cause a decrease in sales, that's not even remotely a good enough excuse not to make those recommendations.

    We're talking about people's lives here.

    Frito-Lay should not have any say in what Canadians should eat.

    Tomorrow: Broken from the Get Go - Get this, the new Food Guide is based off of current Canadian dietary patterns....where 40% of all vegetables consumed are potatoes with over half of the potatoes being consumed coming from french fries or potato chips. That seems smart.

    Yesterday: Canada's Food Guide to Unhealthy Eating - An Overview