Health Canada has stacked its food advisory panels with industry insiders who threaten to derail healthy food initiatives, a new report alleges.
A group of scientists and researchers published a critical paper in the journal Open Medicine lambasting the federal government for biasing its advisory panels – groups that routinely advise the department on its food policies – by including too many individuals or researchers who work for or receive funding from food corporations.
The "strong presence of commercial interests [and] the lack of transparent formal safeguards … are indicative of an environment where commercial interests may have a negative impact on national food-policy recommendations," said the Open Medicine report.
Food advisory panels make recommendations on everything from how to reduce trans fats and salt in packaged and processed foods, to the types and amounts of foods that should be part of a healthy diet. Some of these policy decisions could have a direct impact on the products that food companies sell, which is why the report's authors are concerned the food industry has been given too much influence on these panels.
Health Canada declined a Globe and Mail request to comment on the allegations made in the report.
Poor diet and unhealthy lifestyles are major contributors to cardiovascular disease, stroke and cancer, the leading causes of death and disability in Canada. Governments around the world use expert advisory panels made up of scientists, physicians and patient advocates to find ways to improve the accessibility of healthy food.
Typically, individuals representing the food industry would represent one voice among a diverse list of stakeholders.
But in recent years, the federal government has made calculated changes to this formula, said Dr. Norm Campbell, a physician and professor at the University of Calgary, one of the authors of the new report who has extensive experience as a member on Health Canada's food advisory panels. To write their report, the authors used information provided online by Health Canada about advisory-panel membership and their financial disclosures.
The food industry now holds the balance of power on many advisory committees, Campbell said.
And all advisory group members are forced to sign confidentiality agreements, meaning they are not able to discuss what healthy food initiatives are scuttled at the behest of those representing the food industry.
"We can see injustices done and the influence. We're not allowed to talk about it. We're essentially muzzled," he said.
In the past, Health Canada employees would sit on the committees and represent the interests of the Canadian public, Campbell said. But now, they speak more and more for the industry, he said.
"This has been a dramatic change," he said. "I have talked to some of them and they were actually told, 'You're not here to represent what you think, you're here to represent the Harper government and you have to represent their policies and what they say.'"
The authors of the report point to other countries to demonstrate how the federal government is neglecting to help Canadians make healthier choices.
In Britain, for instance, the government has introduced restrictions on advertising unhealthy foods to children and has an aggressive strategy for monitoring the amount of sodium that food companies are allowed to add to their products.
In Canada, the federal government assembled a sodium working group in 2007 to address the fact that the average Canadian consumes double the recommended amount of sodium each day. The panel recommended a plan to require the food industry to lower the amount of salt they are allowed to add to packaged and processed food products.
But the federal government ignored that recommendation and instead is allowing the industry to voluntarily reduce sodium levels in food.
The government also disbanded the working group on salt and replaced it with the Food Expert Advisory Committee. According to the committee's website, 32 per cent of members have direct ties to the food industry and 68 per cent have direct or indirect ties to the food industry. Indirect ties could refer to research funding, grants, gifts or travel and accommodation costs for speaking at a conference.