This contribution is part of our series of blog posts by students at MCI | The Entrepreneurial School®. The views expressed are those of the students themselves and are intended to inform and stimulate discourse.
Author: Nadine Doll
Editorial processing: Raffael Heiss
03.11.2022 (updated, 12.12.2022)
Ass. FH-Prof. Dr. Raffael Heiss, MA
+43 512 2070 - 7432
The food industry invests large amounts of money in PR and lobbying to influence political decision-making processes (So, 2021). In the United States, the 30 largest food companies (Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Co) collectively spend almost $40 million a year on lobbying (Doering, 2021). Most of the money flows through Coca-Cola. The company invested about $5.83 million in 24 lobbyists in 2020 (Doering, 2021). However, lobbying is not always done through highly paid lobbyists. In Austria, for example, the association "forum. ernährung heute" is repeatedly criticized as a strategic arm of the food industry (e.g., ORF, 2015).
Active lobbying is of course not prohibited. The NGO Transparency International describes lobbying activities as an integral part of a healthy democracy: "They allow different interest groups to express their views on public decisions that may affect them." (So, 2021) However, food companies pursue private-sector for-profit enterprises that are not necessarily aligned with public interests. For example, cumulative scientific knowledge is rarely a priority when it comes to enforcing or preventing laws and regulations in their favor (Stuckler & Nestle, 2012).
But who is actually behind the Forum Ernährung heute (FEH)? What agenda does the forum pursue? And how does it influence policy?
According to its own data, the "forum. ernährung heute" was founded in 1991 "as a science-based communication platform and aims to contribute to better information in the nutrition discussion and to educate in a generally understandable way." (Forum Ernährung Heute, 2022a). However, a look at the Forum's membership list reveals a clear conflict of interest. Namely, the members of the Forum include companies such as Coca-Cola, McDonalds, RedBull or Manner (Forum Ernährung Heute, 2022a).
In response to a press inquiry in 2017, it was stated that the Forum receives "on average about 10,000 euros per year" from each company (ORF, 2017). With 22 listed members, that would mean approximately 220,000 euros per year. According to the Forum's own information, its annual budget in recent years has averaged between 250,000 and 300,000 euros (ORF, 2017). The association thus receives most of its money from the industry. While the Forum's annual report names the funders, it does not communicate how much they give to the association. However, for an assessment of the association's activities, it would be essential to be able to transparently map the financial flows.
The Forum's partner companies (see Figure 1) are all known for producing or selling highly-processed foods that are often high in sugar and fat and low in fiber (Pagliai et al., 2021). Given this background, it is not surprising that the "forum. Ernährung Heute" was not very pleased about, for example, the WHO recommendation of consuming a maximum of 5-10 teaspoons of sugar per day (World Health Organization, 2015) (see Forum Ernährung Heute, 2015). The FEH website provides the following perspective when it comes to sugar consumption:
"Sugar is often in the crossfire of criticism. There is discussion of it as a "people's drug," and consequences such as obesity and diabetes are mentioned. But science shows that sugar is neither addictive nor diabetes-causing. Obesity is caused by a number of factors and results from a general imbalance between energy intake and consumption. Of course, it's easy to define a bogeyman. But there are neither "good" nor "bad" foods; this classification cannot be made seriously. What is essential are long-term dietary habits and an active lifestyle. Demonizing individual products is therefore not helpful. It misses the point - namely, the causes of the problem. Solutions for the practice lie in an increased culinary education and in a self-responsible lifestyle" (Forum Ernährung Heute, 2022b).
In addition, the Forum tries to minimize the role of sugar consumption in numerous press releases. In a press release from 2014, for example, the Forum writes:
"Wide hips and a round belly therefore have little to do with too much sugar or fat in the food - on its contrary. In a balanced diet, every food and drink has a place." (Nutrition Today Forum, 2014)
According to the WHO, increased sugar consumption promotes excess calorie intake. In addition, there would be a clear link between increased sugar consumption (especially from sugary drinks) and obesity, type 2 diabetes, and many other non-communicable diseases of civilization (World Health Organization, 2015). However, the Forum's published statements primarily blame lack of physical activity for these diseases, thereby delegating responsibility to consumers.
But why is the Forum doing this? In the interest of its funders, the Forum probably wants to counteract possible government regulation, such as an increase in the sugar tax or regulation of the marketing of sugary products.
Influence on the National Nutrition Commission
In addition to the communication activities listed above, the Forum is also represented on the National Nutrition Commission (NEK), a key body in national nutrition policy. The NEK advises the Federal Minister of Health on all matters related to health-related nutrition policy (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2022). On the website of the Ministry of Health, Social Affairs, and Consumer Protection, the NEK is assigned the following responsibilities (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2022):
- Evaluation of existing evidence
- Identification of specific areas for action based on scientific risk assessment and urgency analysis
- Sharpening of target formulations within the fields of action
- Derivation of possible measures and priority actions
- Preparation of proposals regarding prioritization of fields of action, target groups and, if necessary, individual settings
- Platform for exchange / network building
- Source of information for the population
Due to the advisory function of the NEK, decisions have a direct impact on legislation and thus also on the entire Austrian population. Therefore, it is important that this advisory body is staffed by trustworthy and independent institutions or individuals. The members of the NEK come from 41 different institutions. Each institution sends two representatives (Ministry of Social Affairs, 2022). The list of members includes, among others, the "forum. ernährung heute". As of today (August 2022), the FEH has two representatives: Marlies Gruber (Executive Director of FEH) and Claudia Maria Angele, who is on the FEH Scientific Advisory Board (see Figure 2, Ministry of Social Affairs 2022).
At a time when obesity numbers are rising, it is especially important that the National Nutrition Commission is composed of independent individuals. Industry-sponsored associations, such as the "forum. ernährung heute," unfortunately often challenge the broad scientific consensus and spread disinformation that can undermine trust in public institutions, such as the WHO. Similar examples can be found at the international level, such as something like the International Life Sciences Institute (Greenhalgh, 2019). Regulations, like the introduction of a sugar tax or stricter regulation of marketing activities, are effective and should also be discussed more broadly in Austria.
A tax on sugar-sweetened beverages has already been introduced in 54 countries worldwide. Studies from Mexico, South Africa, and the United Kingdom have shown that taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages can drastically reduce sugar consumption (Obesity Evidence Hub, 2022). So it would make sense to take a closer look at the results from these countries and learn from them. In Austria and many other countries, however, this has been successfully prevented for years by the food industry, among other things through effective lobbying and PR work. There are many measures that could also help to reduce diseases and obesity in Austria. Appropriate political measures would be an important step in the right direction.
Doering, Ch. (2021). Where the dollars go: Lobbying a big business for large food and beverage CPGs. https://www.fooddive.com/news/where-the-dollars-go-lobbying-a-big-business-for-large-food-and-beverage-c/607982/?utm_source=Sailthru&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Issue:%202021-12 06%20Food%20Dive%20Newsletter%20%5Bissue:38423%5D&utm_term=Food%20Dive
Forum Ernährung Heute (2014). Gute Gewohnheiten statt "böse" Lebensmittel. https://www.ots.at/amp/pr/OTS_20140526_OTS0126/
Forum Ernährung Heute (2015). Neue WHO-Zuckerguideline verkennt Ursachen. https://www.forum-ernaehrung.at/pressemeldungen/detail/news/detail/News/neue-who-zuckerguideline-verkennt-ursachen/
Forum Ernährung Heute (2021). f.eh-Report 2021. https://www.forum-ernaehrung.at/fileadmin/user_upload/f.eh_report_2021.pdf
Forum Ernährung Heute (2022a). https://www.forum-ernaehrung.at/wir-ueber-uns/mitglieder/
Forum Ernährung Heute (2022b). https://www.forum-ernaehrung.at/themen/zucker
Greenhalgh, S. (2019). Making China safe for Coke: how Coca-Cola shaped obesity science and policy in China. BMJ, 364. https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k5050
Obesity Evidence Hub (2022). Countries that have implemented taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). https://www.obesityevidencehub.org.au/collections/prevention/countries-that-have-implemented-taxes-on-sugar-sweetened-beverages-ssbs
ORF (2017). Ernährungstipps mit Geld der Industrie. orf.at. https://orf.at/v2/stories/2384267/2384266/
Pagliai, G., Dinu, M., Madarena, M. P., Bonaccio, M., Iacoviello, L., & Sofi, F. (2021). Consumption of ultra-processed foods and health status: a systematic review and meta-analysis. British Journal of Nutrition, 125(3), 308-318.
So, A. (2021). The food industry presence at COP26. Food Research Collaboration. https://foodresearch.org.uk/blogs/the-food-industry-presence-at-cop26/
Sozialministerium (2022): NEK - Nationale Ernährungskommission. https://www.sozialministerium.at/Themen/Gesundheit/Lebensmittel-Ernaehrung/Ernaehrungsstrategien-und-Gremien/NEK.html
Stuckler, D., & Nestle, M. (2012). Big food, food systems, and global health. PLoS medicine, 9(6). https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pmed.1001242
WHO (2015). Guideline: Sugars intake for adults and children. Geneva: World Health Organization (WHO). https://www.who.int/publications/i/item/9789241549028