Key trade associations, including the European Breakfast Cereal Association (CEEREAL), FoodDrinkEurope (FDE) the European Snacks Association (ESA) and Caobisco, all come under fire for pushing back against more progressive EU sugar laws.
The damning report, A spoonful of sugar, compares the tactics in play to those used by the tobacco industry. Billions are spent protecting profits at the expense of public health, Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) claimed.
“Despite a growing body of scientific studies highlighting the connection between excess sugar consumption and obesity, heart disease, and type-2 diabetes, over the past decade the food industry has vigorously mobilised to stop vital public health legislation in this area,” the report concludes.
Industry groups slammed the assessment as “a complete misrepresentation of facts”, underplaying the progress being made to address issues such as obesity and diabetes.
CEO highlighted how proposals – including upper limits for sugars in processed foods, sugar taxes and labels that clearly show added sugars – have all
been delayed or derailed thanks to industry groups armed with an annual €21.3m budget to lobby policymakers.
These rules “should not be left to the food and drink industry to shape or gut via undue influence”, CEO said. It also warned against the free trade regimes being pursued by the EU, which will give the sugar lobby “more weapons” to dictate regulations.
The report also shoots down voluntary agreements as “weak”, and zooms in on some of the well-publicised cases of “not-so-independent” scientific case studies.
CEO called for “a clear division between the regulators and the regulated”. Efforts to create this divide could mirror those in tobacco, in which interactions are largely restricted, it said.
Concerns are also raised in relation to European Commission proposals on the sugar content of baby food (since voted down by the European Parliament), as well as the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) position on sugar.
“The sheer intensity of lobbying by the food and drink industry at the EU level over sugar had some devastating results,” the report states. “The European Food Safety Authority’s 2010 opinion that there was no connection between sugar consumption and obesity continues to affect European consumer behaviour today.”
EFSA is due to discuss its opinion on upper limits for added sugar intake this September. This follows pressure from five Nordic countries.
CEO’s report pulls no punches in its assessment of policy-making at an EU level.
“Sound scientific advice is being sidelined by the billions of euros backing the sugar lobby,” added co-author Katharine Ainger. “In its dishonesty and its disregard for people's health, the food and drink industry rivals the tactics we’ve seen from the tobacco lobby for decades.”
But industry group FoodDrinkEurope hit back at the findings. “It blatantly ignores the commitment and responsibility the European food and drink industry has taken in the fight against obesity,” said communications director Florence Ranson. “Those we work with and who know our industry also know that this report is a complete misrepresentation of facts and of what we stand for.”
Jennifer Powers, head of advocacy at Westbourne Communications, a UK public relations agency which specialises in 'reputation management', said it is vital for good policy making that all sides in the debate make their case to legislators. In her experience, “both industry and NGOs feel they are up against an implacable opponent who is in danger of winning the battle of ideas”.
She noted that lobbying efforts in Brussels also appear to have been more successful than in the UK, where the government sprung a surprise levy on soft drinks manufacturers earlier this year.
Following the Brexit vote, the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, has urged politicians to put the idea on ice.