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How food lobbyists weakened Dutch overweight measures

This paper explores how the food industry was able to influence and weaken the 2018 Dutch prevention agreement on overweight, using documents obtained through Freedom of Information requests. It argues that so-called voluntary agreements - a form of governance developed through negotiation between public and private stakeholders - is too susceptible to industry influence, and that stronger public regulation is a better alternative.

Voluntary agreements (VAs) have been used because of their ability to utilise the expertise of a wide range of stakeholders, for their potential to develop agreements in a faster and more adaptable manner than legislation, and for their ability to influence industry beyond the scope of national regulations (which can sometimes fall foul of free trade agreements).

Weaknesses of VAs identified by previous studies include the fact that they are not legally enforceable, the consensual nature of their decision-making processes which can limit their ambition to move away from the status quo, and the fact that private business interests may be able to use the process to push outcomes away from what might be optimal for the public interest. 

The author of this paper analysed 246 government documents that described the development of the 2018 Dutch prevention agreement on overweight, including meeting minutes, letters from interest groups, annotated drafts of different versions of the agreement and emails between civil servants and stakeholders. Interviews (both verbal and written) were also conducted with several relevant stakeholders to gain more insight into the process.

The key takeaways from these documents outlined by the paper are:

  • The food industry lobbied for the creation of five “subtables” (subgroups of the Overweight Table which consulted a wide range of stakeholders) in which to discuss separate aspects of overweight: food, care and support, environment, sports and exercise and integral perspective. The structure of the discussion tables is shown below.

Image: Fig. 1., Lelieveldt (2022). Main tables and subtables for Overweight Table in the prevention agreement.


  • Although the range of stakeholders involved in the overall VA consultation process appears broad, including representatives of NGOs concerned with food, healthcare, education, sports and care, the food subtable was dominated by industry: it consisted of four food organisations and one NGO. The paper argues that this creation of a smaller arena in which the food industry could be in the majority was done intentionally after food industry representatives realised they would be in the minority in plenary meetings of the Overweight Table.
  • In plenary meetings of the Overweight Table, ambitious targets were agreed for reducing the prevalence of overweight and obesity despite opposition from the food industry.
  • However, at the food subtable, food industry representatives (who were in the majority here) rejected many specific measures from the government Ministry and from the only NGO on the subtable, including reducing the size of candy bars and implementing more ambitious sugar reduction targets. 
  • Furthermore, only 5 of the 17 agreed action points that involve industry meet SMART criteria - that is, are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound - according to the author’s own analysis. The author points out several examples of action points being watered down during the revision process, e.g. a goal of “intake of 250 g of vegetables and 200 g of fruit” being replaced with a “structural increase in the consumption of fruit”.
  • Although the Health Secretary wished to introduce a sugar levy (following the success of a similar scheme in the UK), this measure was strongly opposed by food industry representatives both in meetings of the Overweight Table and through coordinated backstage lobbying. Food industry representatives threatened to walk out of the negotiations if the sugar levy was included in the final agreement. Ultimately, the sugar levy was dropped, although the documents do not show exactly how or why. In an interview, one lobbyist for the food industry suggested that he could perhaps take credit for the removal of the sugar levy and suggested that the liberal conservative political party the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) had blocked the sugar levy, an account that was confirmed by the chair of the Overweight Table. (For more on the influence of other political parties on food policies in the Netherlands, see the TABLE blog Government, stay away from our meatball: How populism stops us from eating less meat).
  • The chair of the Overweight Table reflected that the lobbying skills of the food industry were stronger than those of the NGOs, saying that “the NGOs often got bogged down in endless debates about minor details”.

The author reflects that although voluntary agreements have acquired a status as the preferred mode of policymaking, they can delay and limit the effectiveness of agreements on health. The new Dutch government that took power in January 2022 ultimately announced plans to introduce a sugar levy through legislative means, following analyses of the previous voluntary agreement that showed its measures to be too weak.



Food policies to foster a healthy lifestyle are to an increasing extent developed through processes of collaborative governance in which public and private stakeholders negotiate voluntary agreements (VAs). The effectiveness of these VAs has been questioned repeatedly, because of the involvement of the food industry in drawing up these agreements.

In this article I further develop insights into food industry influence in collaborative governance through an in-depth analysis of negotiations on the Dutch prevention agreement on overweight which was concluded in 2018. Using documents obtained through a Freedom of Information request I show how the food industry succeeded in shifting the regulatory arena towards a collaborative governance set up that allowed them to co-design and propose appropriate measures. Secondly, in this arena the industry managed to weaken and modify most of the measures for which it would be responsible. Finally, the industry used backstage lobbying outside of the official arena to block a plan to introduce a sugar levy.

The case study confirms the weakness of voluntary agreements as an alternative to public regulation. This weakness results from the food industry’s ability to capture collaborative governance processes and combine these with behind the scenes lobbying tactics. Policy-makers should therefore seriously reconsider the use of VAs for public health policies and governments should empower themselves to make a better use of public regulation both at national and EU level.



Lelieveldt, H., 2023. Food industry influence in collaborative governance: The case of the Dutch prevention agreement on overweight. Food Policy, 114, p.102380.

Read the full paper here. See also the TABLE explainer What can be done to shift eating patterns in healthier, more sustainable directions?

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minute read

12 Dec 2022
Image: Aymanejed, Laptop office hand, Pixabay, Pixabay Licence
Document type
Fodder Category