“Canada’s Food Guide”: the strategies of the agri-food industry analyzed

“Canada’s Food Guide”: the strategies of the agri-food industry analyzed
“Canada’s Food Guide”: the strategies of the agri-food industry analyzed

Major players in the country’s agri-food industry have used several strategies to demonstrate their opposition to the guidelines issued by Health Canada during the review of the Canada’s Food Guide, which took place from 2016 to 2019.

In total, they carried out 366 political and commercial activities, of which 82 (22%) involved criticizing the scientific data on which Health Canada relied and 76 (21%) presented unpublished and cherry-picked data because They were to the advantage of the agri-food industry.

This is what Marie-Chantal Robitaille observed in her master’s work carried out under the direction of Professor Jean-Claude Moubarac, from the Department of Nutrition at the University of Montreal. His results were recently published in the journal Health Promotion and Chronic Disease Prevention in Canada.

Update the “Guide” while avoiding conflicts of interest

Marie-Chantal Robitaille

Credit: Courtesy

During the review, which lasted three years, a committee established by Health Canada was mandated to hold consultations to update the Canada’s Food Guide based on three guiding principles and recommendations (see the box at the end of the article).

For reasons of transparency and to avoid conflicts of interest, players in the agri-food industry were excluded from the consultations, as were experts and scientists funded by the industry.

“This decision by Health Canada is supported by scientific literature as well as by the World Health Organization, according to which collaboration between the public and private sector can alter the general interest in public health and make it difficult to establish policies. public in this area,” explains Marie-Chantal Robitaille.

Additionally, the latest version of Guide was considered obsolete by several health professionals, “who found it ineffective and not very credible because it had become a marketing tool for certain products,” she adds.

Although they did not participate in the public consultation, industry players were nevertheless able to express their views on the guidelines by submitting 11 briefs to the Standing Committee on Health of the House of Commons.

List and analyze industry stocks

It is in these memoirs, and the websites of the 11 authors of the memoirs, that Marie-Chantal Robitaille listed the political and commercial activities of the industry, which she grouped into four major strategies, namely:

  • information management (deletion of information, damage to the credibility of third parties, etc.);
  • discursive approaches (focusing the debate on issues of food and public health to favor the interests of the industry);
  • political influence (lobbying and indirect contacts with decision-makers);
  • coalition management (creation of a support network, particularly with health professionals and other opponents).

“My work aimed first to identify the political and commercial activities carried out by actors in the agri-food industry during the development of the Canada’s Food Guide in order to influence the revision process, then to analyze the discourse and the position of these actors regarding the three guiding principles and the recommendations proposed by Health Canada,” mentions the student.

No less than 366 political activities

The 366 political and commercial activities that it identified are mainly carried out by three national organizations, namely the Dairy Farmers of Canada (24%), the Juice Council (20%), which makes up the sugary drinks and sugary drinks industry. soft drinks, and the National Cattle Feeders Association (16%).

Information management strategies resulted in 197 activities (a proportion of 53.8%), while discursive strategies resulted in 108 activities (29.5%). The most common information management practice was “suppression”, which relied primarily on criticism of scientific data by pointing out their complexity and uncertainties. It resulted in 98 political and commercial activities (27%).

For example, in their brief presented to the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, the Egg Farmers of Canada indicated that dialogue between agri-food producers and health professionals “is an important step to ensure the balance of opinions”, illustrates Marie-Chantal Robitaille.

The Canadian Meat Council attempted a similar maneuver to justify the importance of being consulted, claiming that it had “expertise in nutritional science as well as consumer education.”

Pressures that have not shaken scientists or Health Canada

According to the researcher and her colleagues, the pressure exerted by the agri-food industry on the review committee of the Canada’s Food Guide as well as on Health Canada remained a dead letter.

“This is what places Canada advantageously compared to other countries where the agri-food industry has managed to make gains,” says Marie-Chantal Robitaille. Moreover, the scientific literature on this subject shows that the industry has used the same strategies, particularly in the United States, where companies joined forces from 2010 to 2012 to counter government efforts intended to fight obesity. .”

One of the main tactics put forward by this industry is to “exaggerate the costs it will have to absorb to adapt to the proposed changes and to use an alarmist tone to warn the public about the economic problems and access to food that these will entail,” concludes the study.

Three guiding principles guided the development of the latest “Canada’s Food Guide”

Principle no 1: A variety of nutritious foods and drinks is the foundation of a healthy diet. Health Canada recommends:

  • regular consumption of vegetables, fruits, whole grains and foods rich in protein, especially plant-based proteins;
  • including foods that contain mostly unsaturated fats rather than saturated fats;
  • regular consumption of water.

Principle no 2: Processed or prepared foods and beverages high in sodium, sugar or saturated fat are detrimental to a healthy diet. Health Canada recommends:

  • limited consumption of processed or prepared foods high in sodium or saturated fat;
  • non-consumption of processed or prepared drinks high in sugar.

Principle no 3: Knowledge and skills are necessary to navigate a complex food environment and promote healthy eating. Health Canada recommends:

  • a choice of nutritious foods in grocery stores and restaurants;
  • planning and preparing healthy meals and snacks;
  • eating meals with family or friends as often as possible.
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