Thursday, July 12, 2012

What The Food Industry Does At a Public Health Policy Table

Beatrice Martha Webb 1858-1943
Yesterday I had the pleasure of presenting some of my thoughts to the Ontario Childhood Obesity Healthy Kids Panel. It was a lively discussion and I'm hopeful that I provided them with some figurative food for thought and was certainly heartened by the undeniably evident gravity with which committee members have taken to their task.

While a brief blog post won't be sufficient to suss out my presentation and our discussions I can tell you that my contribution's overarching theme was that what we require is an attack, not on childhood obesity, but on an environment where the proverbial life current relentlessly pushes us all, old and young alike, to consume too much food, too many unhealthy products, and too many calories. The default for the majority in this environment is gain. Not gain by their choosing, but gain because swimming against a relentless and powerful current isn't a sustainable, realistic or fair strategy for surviving what for the past 40 years of environmental change has turned into an increasingly violent flood. Ultimately we need to change the defaults and in addressing the flood, we therefore need to focus our limited resources on building levees, not on swimming lessons.

Of course there is one group who would be diametrically opposed to a default that led to lesser levels of consumption - the folks who make a living selling consumption - the food industry. Buying less food, buying fewer calories and fewer low-caliber, highly profitable calories (processed, highly pulverized, corn-subsidy subsidized, sweetened, fattened, super-sized and yet evolutionarily delicious to our mouths calories) is not good for the business of food and product manufacturers.

While there are a number of members of this task force who have theoretical conflicts of interest due to ties to the food industry (and it's important to note that the perception of a possible conflict of interest is in fact the very definition of a conflict of interest and that having a conflict therefore doesn't necessitate ever acting consequent to the conflict), there is one member whose actual job it is to represent them. What was perhaps telling was the fact that during my presentation and during the question and answer period that followed that member was furiously taking notes while all of the other members were actively engaging in conversation and discussion.

Do you think those notes were meant to further the fight against the currents driving childhood obesity? Were they points of agreement? Were they ways the food industry could build on my call to action that we need to change the default such that people will buy less food? And why did this member not engage in a discussion with me while there?

I don't know the answers to those questions, but I'd be willing to wager that unlike everyone else at the table, given that member's actual paying day job is to protect the interests of the food-selling corporations they represent, that those notes weren't about points of agreement. I also think that not engaging me was certainly in part consequent to knowing my less than friendly viewpoint, but also likely in part due to the fact that engaging me directly would be far more challenging given my background than engaging and reviewing my words and views once I was gone. What I'd wager the notes were for was to ensure my objections and concerns were noted such that either on their own or with the help of their colleagues, that they work on their best possible spins so as to champion those few recommendations the food industry could live with (at least on paper), and also how to best defuse or dilute those recommendations that would in fact certainly hurt sales (like for instance a frank ad ban on children's advertising and a reform of front of package labeling to disallow nutrient based health claims that dupe people into buying boxes of junk spiked with a vitamin).

It's truly a shame that there are both real and potential conflicts of interests at that table, and given the sophistication of the food industry the simple math that there are more non-conflicted members than conflicted ones doesn't make it any better. Consider this. The food industry representative's living depends in part on their skills as an expert communicator and they also have tremendous resources at their disposal to try to work on messaging to support their members' interests, whereas the public members, they're just people who care and are experts in their various professions - professions that don't require them to be experts in spin - who will be going back to their real day jobs until the next meeting, whereas being at the meeting IS the food industry representative's job.

I concluded my presentation by referring the members to the story of Beatrice Martha Webb. Webb was a woman ahead of her time and along with helping to co-found the London School of Economics, she was also a member of an important government task force that was considering the notion of social equity. Unhappy with the recommendations that were shaping up in the meetings, Webb elected to champion the publication of a minority report which allowed dissenting members to have their voices heard without the need for unanimity. For Webb, her disagreements with the recommendations the committee was set to make were so important and formative to what she viewed as right and wrong, that dilution of her convictions to achieve a compromise was not an acceptable option to her.

It's been said that the person in the relationship who cares the least wields the most power, and when it comes to the health of children there's no doubt representatives of the food industry will care the least, not because they're horrible people, but simply because caring about health is only within their mandate if it doesn't negatively impact upon (or if it improves upon) sales or public perception (which in turn affects sales).

While you might argue that the food industry should have a say at these meetings, I think it's absolutely unconscionable that they've been given a vote.