Wednesday, 24 November 2010

Interns speak up at the OECD meeting on industry-led regulation

Ane (left) and Ileana (right)
Ileana Søndergaard and Ane Hagtvedt, interns at Consumers International, have their say at the OECD. 

As Public Health Nutrition and Food Policy students yet to hand in their bachelor theses, getting an invitation to attend an OECD meeting in Paris is a big thing. Having worked at Consumers International (CI) this autumn researching countries’ regulation of the marketing of food to children, we got the chance to get a taste of how the organisations, the industry and the governments that we write about in our papers act in ‘real life’.

The project at CI gave us the chance to see how a number of organisations function and how they collaborate with each other. However, the OECD is one of those organisations that you as a student, hear about, read about and reference. Period. You never really imagine that you yourself will ever have anything to do with them – at least not for a few more years.

Therefore, it was a great opportunity for us to be able to attend the Committee on Consumer Policy's meeting on industry-led regulation. Here we got to witness a range of different stakeholders presenting differing interests and see those stakeholders both clash and collaborate with each other.

What surprised us most about the experience was that nothing that was said at the meeting really surprised us. The various stakeholders took their expected stands, including industry, with their 'there are no bad foods – only bad diets' argument, and that self-regulation indeed is feasible in the case of marketing to children.

After hearing this and after having been attentive and alert, but quiet, we just had to say something – this was a discussion we didn’t want to miss without putting in our two cents, too. Of course, after hearing everyone else deliver their statements and opinions in the most diplomatic of ways, we knew we had to be at least as humble as our fellow more experienced participants.

With a bit of hidden nervousness and hearts beating a bit faster than usual, we said what we thought was lacking in the debate: the codes that industry offer tend to be rather vague and confuse rather than send a much needed clear message. We also gave some examples of cases where there is a great need for improvement.

We finished speaking. And this is what we found the most interesting: we felt like we had been heard. The OECD is apparently not as ‘heavy’ and stiff as we had originally envisioned. Yes, their reports can be ‘weighty’ at times – we will admit that. But in reality it is an organisation a lot more fluid, flexible and transparent than one would think.

The fact that the committee is represented by participants from very different backgrounds – both in terms of nationality and profession is a great benefit. This, along with the admirable work done by many of the committee representatives, leaves us with a sense that things are in fact moving in the right direction.

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