Lobbyists for 'big food' are potentially swaying health policies in favour of their corporate bottom line in Australia, new research has claimed.
A Deakin University study published Monday has reported finding "direct evidence" of food industry political tactics that had the potential to shape public health-related policies, at the expense of public health.
The research, led by Melissa Mialon, conducted interviews with 15 former politicians, current and former public servants and senior executive officers with non-government organisations over a four month period who had exposure to the industry's "corporate political activity".
Researcher Dr Gary Sacks said unhealthy diet was the biggest contributor to the burden of disease and the food industry had a major influence on the products people choose to eat and drink.
"The powerful junk food industry is highly political and uses carefully designed strategies to influence policy and public opinion in its favour," he said.
"These tactics, often intentionally, undermine efforts to prevent and control obesity and diet-related disease."
While the industry is far from alone in its direct and indirect lobbying of politicians and government officials, the new study found participants were all concerned about the potential for such activities to result in "weakened policy responses to addressing diet-related disease".
But the study did not identify those interview or their political leanings, and worked with only a small sample of those involved in food policy nationally.
Interviewees identified five key types of political activity: information and messaging. financial incentives, constituency building, policy substitution and opposition fragmentation and destabilisation.
The most common tactics interviewees mentioned included stressing the industry's economic importance, 'framing the debate and shaping the evidence' and establishing relationships with politicians, patient advocacy groups and health representative bodies.
One former senior policy-maker said that when an industry provided funds to political parties to help politicians get elected, it gave those donors "better access".
"I have actually been on a Cabinet ...where two of the politicians said 'Well, we can't do that because this is actually one of the major donors to our party', so I actually witnessed that statement," she said.
Dr Sacks said interviewees also highlighted "cherry-picking" of data that suited the industry's position and the use of journals that were not peer-reviewed to publish industry-backed research.
Dr Sacks urged better disclosure of industry funding sources to "researchers, professional bodies, community groups and political parties", and more detailed disclosures on the federal register of lobbyists.
He said the government could also introduce "stronger conflict of interest processes to prevent commercial vested interests dominating public policy development."
The paper was published in the Australia-New Zealand Journal of Public Health.
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