Should Lobbyists participate in Public Debates – Healthy Food?

One of the big changes you notice when you walk around food supermarket is that they have grown bigger, with higher shelves packed closer together than before! There are so many new products there screaming for a place in your shopping baskets. 

  • “We are not made from meat” say the pale pink vege-cakes in their plastic protected packages. “We are organic” whimper the wilting vegetables and sad looking fruits. 
  • “We have 30% less sugar” say the ketchups and yoghurts.
  • “No GM modified soya eaten here” cluck the chicken legs and breasts.

The shelves are groaning with sugar, fats and processed flours and many other heavily processed products that have shelf lives of months… In fact they now occupy over 30% of the shelf area of all supermarkets.

Some people may welcome this expansion of new wonderful concoctions, but most of them are expensive and heavily processed in some far off factory and packaged for a very long wait on the shelves meaning that they have plenty of additives that the EU has graciously accepted after super active highly paid lobbyists have secured a green light for them with snake oil promises, nice lunches, dinners and seminars.

A few years ago the Finnish government tried to pass a sugar tax because too many Finns are obese. According to the OECD we rank 4th in Europe. Too many Finns like to munch cakes, sweet cinnamon buns, biscuits, chocolates, sweets as well as sweet fizzy drinks and ice cream.

Naturally the domestic food industry cryied foul because “people have the right to eat what they want” and the government “has no right to limit their freedom of choice”. The food industry is big business here and is very active in supporting the politicians on the right – so it is no surprise that the sugar tax was eventually scrapped. 

Now the government here is proposing a new Heath Law and the food industry lobby has come to life again supported by the two huge retail groups K-Group and S-Group, who together have an 84% slice of the market – nice if you can get it.

The Finnish public broadcasting company, YLE, (roughly pronounced “Ü-Lay”) recently broadcast a debate during prime time TV. A celebrated and very experienced medical doctor spoke about the importance of eating healthy fresh foods like vegetables, fruits, wholesome grains, mushrooms, berries, fish and light meats like chicken and turkey. He spoke against excessive consumption of red meats, sugar, salt, fats and oils, and processed flours. 

On the other side of the table was a food lobbyist from the employer’s side. He disagreed with any new laws that guided people away from unhealthy food. He explained to us that it was the consumer who was demanding these products and that they should be free to choose what they want to buy. Legislation and new taxes are not needed. We are already paying too much in taxes, he claimed. 

Of course he did not mention that profits are driving the expansion of these new products that factories and shops are happy to sell. He did not see any reason to guide populations away from foodstuffs that cause obesity, heart, diabetes and early deaths. He did not consider the costs of such waste caused by selling trashy foodstuffs to unsuspecting consumers. Just like the tobacco industry, the food industry is still in denial.

The bigger question here though is why was the lobbyist invited to speak on the same program? He added nothing to the discussion except the obvious “we want to keep and maximize our profits from a very nice business.”

The fact is that lobbyists should not have the right to appear on such programs because they are not the right party to discuss with the doctor. The right person would be a professor of constitutional rights who could present the legal arguments relating to the freedom of choice and the government’s right to tax. Alternatively a researcher could have been invited to discuss the affordability of new taxes on food and their possible impact on low income people. However, it was worth noting that the doctor told viewers that good healthy foods are a lot cheaper than processed foods!

One can argue that YLE was not running a balanced debate by inviting an intruder into the studio when they should have requested a real expert who could challenge the medical doctor with valid factual arguments. There is no value in having paid lobbyists talking shop – they are not experts but simply glorified salesmen with an abundance of resources to talk shop.

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