Lobbying registrations by stakeholder type and healthy eating initiative
The voice of industry stakeholders dominated the lobbying landscape during the policy window for the Healthy Eating Strategy, as demonstrated by the proportion of industry-affiliated registrants (88%), and corporations and organizations (90%) in lobbying registrations and the number of interactions between industry-affiliated stakeholders and DPOH (86%). The results of the study show proportionately more interactions with industry stakeholders compared to a recent publication (86% versus 56%) that looked into interactions with Health Canada on the topic of the Healthy Eating Strategy using the MCHE database over a shorter time period . Moreover, the results are in line with those of a recent publication which examined lobbying in the context of marketing to children in Canada and the failed Bill S-228 on marketing restrictions . The proportionately small number of non-industry stakeholders lobbying on the topic of the Healthy Eating Strategy is cause for concern given that they advocate for public health, rather than economic interests.
Healthy eating initiatives of interest in lobbying registrations varied by stakeholder type. The vast majority (86%) of organizations and corporations represented in lobbying registrations pertaining to marketing to children had industry-affiliations. In addition to the food and beverage industry, the media and communication industry was also actively involved in lobbying activities surrounding marketing to children. This is unsurprising, given that these industries may see marketing restrictions as a direct threat to their commercial and economic interests. Moreover, this highlights corporate players beyond the food and beverage industry that have vested interests in nutrition policies, and who should not be overlooked when implementing measures to safeguard the development of public policies. Although impossible to determine the impact of lobbying in this study, these results suggest that industry viewpoints were most prominent during the time when Bill S-228 that proposed marketing restrictions was being considered, which may have played a role in its eventual demise in 2019 [14, 31]. These results are also in line with Mulligan et al.’s recent publication which included data from both the Registry of Lobbyists and the MCHE database .
Canada’s Food Guide also received considerable attention from the food and beverage industry, particularly the dairy industry. Partial lobbying restrictions were put in place during the revision of the Food Guide to minimize potential conflict of interest with regard to Health Canada. In fact, officials from Health Canada’s Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion, the office responsible for the revision of Canada’s Food Guide, did not interact with stakeholders from the food and beverage industry during the development process . Therefore, lobbying may have occurred, but only with other government offices or departments outside of the Office of Nutrition Policy and Promotion. This is demonstrated by the considerable number of industries that directly mentioned the Food Guide in their lobbying registrations. Although impossible to measure the impact of lobbying in this study, significant changes to the most recent version of Canada’s Food Guide suggest that these safeguards may have been effective. For instance, despite heavy lobbying from the dairy industry, dairy was removed as a food group, and placed within the general category of protein foods in the revised guide  reflecting current scientific evidence rather than economic interests.
The majority of corporations and organizations registered to lobby on the topic of front-of-pack labelling (86%) had industry affiliations, and most were from the food and beverage industry, particularly the dairy and “other food and beverage” industries. In fact, there was considerable concern voiced from the dairy and beverage industries that this type of labelling would unreasonably penalize their products [33,34,35,36]. Remarkably, less than half (44%, n = 21) of all corporations and organizations explicitly registered to lobby on the topic of front-of-pack nutrition labelling. Nonetheless, using the MCHE database, Vandenbrink et al. showed that in interactions between Health Canada and industry stakeholders, the most frequently discussed topic was front-of-pack labelling . The differences in results may be partly explained by the purposeful exclusion of broad terms such as “nutrition labelling” from the search strategy in the present study, which provides a conservative estimate of lobbying for this topic in particular, as well as the different timing of the studies. Moreover, the present study identifies who registered to lobby on the topic of front-of-pack labelling, rather than instances of communication specific to front-of-pack nutrition labelling; these may have been more numerous, but this could not be examined using the current dataset.
Less than a quarter of corporations and organizations registered to lobby on the topic of the nutritional quality of the food supply, a policy area which would mostly affect the processed and packaged food industry. In fact, most of the organizations and corporations fell within the “other food and beverage production and manufacturing” category. The small number of organizations and corporations who registered to lobby on this topic may be explained by the voluntary nature of the sodium reduction targets , the historical nature of the sodium and trans-fat initiatives (which began in the early 2000s [38, 39]), and the search strategy, which purposefully excluded lobbying registrations referring to the historical trans-fat and sodium reduction initiatives (Supplemental Table S1) to obtain a conservative estimate of lobbying activities.
While this study is not able to assess the causal effect of lobbying, these lobbying data may reflect the policy pathway and current status of the major policies within the Strategy: the only initiative with extensive safeguards during the policy development process (i.e., Canada’s Food Guide) resulted in significant changes and successful implementation. On the other hand, the policy which received the greatest amount of attention from industry (i.e., marketing to children) resulted in failed policy implementation. Moreover, front-of-pack labelling, for which lobbying has occurred and no additional safeguards put in place, has not been implemented as of the date of publication. On the other hand, the initiatives pertaining to the nutritional quality of the food supply received only some lobbying attention which may be related to there having been minimal action immediately required on behalf of the food industry (e.g., given the voluntary nature of the sodium reduction initiative).
Communications by stakeholder type and public office holder ranking
Industry-affiliated stakeholders were shown to have more interactions with DPOH of all ranks, including those in greater positions of power, compared to non-industry stakeholders. In fact, industry-affiliated stakeholders were responsible for 14 times more communications with DPOH of the two highest ranks (within “Parliamentarians and their staff”) compared to non-industry stakeholders, suggesting an uneven playing field and strategic advantage of industry in influencing government officials. Access to policy makers in positions of power has been studied in Australia, where food industry stakeholders were in fact shown to have strategic relationships and access points to decision makers providing them with a greater capacity to lobby and influence nutrition policy compared to other professionals .
Multiple limitations relate to the data available on the Registry of Lobbyists. Firstly, lobbying activities were likely underestimated as the Lobbying Act does not require registrations from private citizens, volunteers, and in-house lobbyists when lobbying does not represent a significant part of their organization’s or corporation’s duties . Secondly, as the content of each specific communication is not disclosed, communications may have been about any subject matter declared by a registrant who registered to lobby on the topic of the Healthy Eating Strategy on behalf of an organization or corporation. To address this, the current study analyzed both registrations and instances of communication; the results should be considered in light of this limitation. Moreover, communication data from the Registry, which was used to rank DPOH, was at times incomplete (e.g., the branch unit was missing from the entry), requiring assumptions related to the government official’s position. For example, DPOH were assumed to have represented the same branch unit if they were present in multiple communications as long as their title and institution remained the same. Targeted online searches were conducted when necessary (i.e., if the missing information was required to rank the DPOH). In addition, certain DPOH held more than one position at a point in time, and only one of the positions was entered into the registry. Therefore, for those with dual roles (such as when a Minister is also a member of Parliament, two distinct roles within our evaluation scheme), ranking was based on the title indicated in the specific communication. A recent report from the Commissioner of Lobbying offers preliminary recommendations to improve the Lobbying Act in Canada . These recommendations would address numerous limitations described in this study, such as amending the threshold for in-house lobbying registrations and expanding reporting requirements for communication reports.
Finally, the search strategy used to identify lobbying activities in the context of the Healthy Eating Strategy likely presents a conservative estimate of lobbying instances. Firstly, initiatives were solely accounted for if explicitly named by the registrant. Moreover, general terms such as ‘labelling’ and ‘nutrition’ were omitted as non-specific to the Healthy Eating Strategy, even though they may have included discussion about associated policies and initiatives. Second, two initiatives (Nutrition North Canada and changes to the Nutrition Facts tables) were excluded from the study.