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Food industry holds sway over public policy with lobbying tactics, study says

Tuesday 24th January 2017

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The food industry in Australia and New Zealand has managed to hold off near-universal calls from public health experts for government to crack down on junk food and sugar through its influential lobbying tactics, says the co-author of an Australian study.

The study, published in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, interviewed "high-level people, including former politicians and civil servants with first-hand experience of these corporate activities," said University of Auckland's Boyd Swinburn, in a media release.

"The main tactics used by the industry identified in the study included framing the solutions to obesity in terms of personal responsibility, using private dinners and other opportunities for lobbying politicians, cherry-picking and promoting the evidence to suit their case, promotion of deregulation and self-regulatory approaches, funding professional nutrition organisations, sponsoring children’s sport and nutrition education materials, and personal criticism of public health advocates," Swinburn writes.

Food industry lobbyists enjoyed "direct influence on politicians ('we have friends in high places')".

"A ‘revolving door’ of former politicians working for the food industry and former food industry employees working in government, were also common strategies mentioned to influence food policies in favour of the industry,” he says. 

Katherine Rich, chief executive of the NZ Food and Grocery Council and a former National Party MP, said the study didn't apply to New Zealand.

"They are welcome to their opinions, but I doubt it’s the reality in Australia and I believe it’s not relevant to New Zealand," she said in an emailed statement. "I was surprised by the paper’s conclusion as it doesn’t reconcile with the professional approach taken by food industry people I’ve dealt with in Australia."

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman has said he isn't convinced a sugar tax would reduce obesity after he was approached by a group of 70-some health academics calling for a tax to combat the fourth-highest rate of childhood obesity in the world.

Swinburn called for "more stringent conflict of interest processes, lobby registers and greater involvement of community and expert groups in the policy process would also protect politicians and government agencies from being unduly influenced by the commercial interests of the junk food industry."

 

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