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Starting with a question

Imagine you’re the European Commission (EC). You want to ram through a bunch of misbegotten laws that will enormously restrict citizens’ freedom of choice in healthcare, along with their ability to choose between healthy and unhealthy foods, while handing yet more power to corporations. The only way you can do this, assuming you want to maintain an essential veneer of public respectability and plausible deniability, is to portray these laws as essential for consumer safety. Which is the tricky part, since it’s patently untrue. How would you solve this little conundrum? I’ll tell you what I’d do if I was a key policy-formulator in the EC at the end of this blog, but let’s run through some pertinent information first.

Venom in Brussels

At the recent 6th Annual European Nutrition and Lifestyle Conference, we were surprised when the loudest backer of a tough health claims regime turned out to be the principle consumer advocate at the meeting. Call us crazy, but we’d have expected someone with a pro-consumer stance to carry the informed choice banner for those consumers – and hence be a proponent of a less restrictive health claims regime than the EC’s favoured model.  The person in question was none other than Sue Davies, Senior Policy Advisor for food issues at Which? – formerly the UK Consumers’ Association. According to Ms Davies, tough regulation is vital to protect European consumers from the enormous amount of false and misleading health-related information on foods and ingredients.

So who is Sue Davies and what influence does she wield? And do Which? and similar organisations really speak on behalf of that most nebulous of political entities, the consumer?

A lady of substance. But which one, exactly?

Not only is Ms Davies Which?’s Senior Policy Advisor, she’s also a member of the UK Food Safety Authority’s Advisory Body for the Delivery of Official Controls, and of something called the Science For All Expert Group, both creations of the UK government. Her opinion is taken seriously at a UK and European level on everything from diet and physical activity to salt and even nanotechnology.

Her links to certain EU institutions go much deeper, however. In 2005, Ms Davies became the first-ever Chair of the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA’s) Stakeholder Consultative Platform. She was obviously a perfect fit for the friendly, welcoming atmosphere at EFSA, because in 2008 she was voted onto EFSA’s Management Board and became its Vice-Chair in October 2010.

Honk, honk: conflict of interest ahead

Her achievement is certainly something to be proud of. So it’s a wonder that, while the EFSA website is upfront about Ms Davies’ position, the extensive Which? site fails to mention her EFSA activities anywhere. Neither could I find any mention of the ‘EFSA connection’ in any of her many newspaper interviews or soundbites.

Could this be because Which? recognises the enormous, honking conflict of interest here? On the one hand, Sue ‘consumers’ champion’ Davies is a high-ranking staff member at an organisation that supposedly represents UK consumers; while on the other hand, Sue ‘Eurocrat’ Davies has another job, working for a European Union (EU) body whose decisions will have a direct effect on the lives of 500 million consumers across the EU. One pertinent effect will be to deprive them of over 90% of the information they need to make healthy food choices.

Consumers’ associations and fig leaves

All this raises important questions over the role of so-called ‘consumers’ associations’. Which? is a subsidiary of a much larger, pan-EU consumers’ association, BEUC.

And guess what? BEUC is part-funded by the European Union. And guess what again? It has lobbied in the past for such anti-consumer-rights measures as the Food Supplements Directive (FSD) and the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR). Funnily enough, Which?, in the person of a certain Sue Davies, holds very similar views on food supplements and has pushed restrictive health claims laws from the beginning. Perhaps coincidentally, Which? recently became notorious for its hatchet job on nutritional therapy.

In answer to my earlier question...

So, to circle back to the question I posed at the beginning of this piece: you know what I’d do if I was a leading policy-formulator in the EC? I’d make sure that the highest-profile consumer organisations were compromised somehow, either through direct EU funding like BEUC, or by developing nice cosy relationships with key staff, such as Sue Davies of Which? And if I was really determined to pull this off, I’d put someone like Ms Davies on the management board of EFSA, neatly removing her ability to criticise any aspect of EFSA policy via a powerful, public forum like Which?

Frankly, it seems that taking Which?’s opinion seriously on anything more complex or politically sensitive than washing machines could seriously damage your health.