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Public Health Before Profit: The case for cautious engagement with the food and beverage industry during the COVID-19 pandemic

Data emerging from China, the United States and Western Europe is showing that obesity, hypertension, diabetes and heart diseases increase the risk of complications from COVID-19. In the meantime, big food companies selling the products that increase the risk of these conditions are responding to the pandemic with multimillion dollar offers of support. What to make of this? In Blog 19 in our series on opportunities for building back better food systems and nutrition, Neena Prasad, Director of Obesity Prevention Program at Bloomberg Philanthropies, argues that while their support might serve a need, it would be a mistake if this “all-hands-on-deck” moment gives them a carte blanche to continue to push out and promote nutrient deficient ultra-processed foods. Rather, this is an opportunity for the leaders in the food industry to show that they can, and should, do better and in so doing, contribute to the process of “constructing the food system we all deserve – one with healthy, fresh and affordable food for everyone.”

-- Corinna Hawkes

The coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc on health and economic systems at a speed and scale unlike anything we have witnessed in our lifetimes. Governments have found themselves ill-equipped to manage this crisis on their own and the private sector is stepping in to fill critical needs.

Various food and beverage companies have responded to the pandemic with multimillion dollar offers of support. Coca-Cola announced grants to food banks and Boys & Girls Clubs in North America and is setting up handwashing stations and donating drinks to healthcare workers in Africa. PepsiCo will support over 35 organizations in more than 40 countries to provide 50 million meals.

These resources may fill an immediate need: Covid-19 is causing unprecedented job loss and people are struggling to put food on the table. This is exacerbated by school closures, a source of meals for hundreds of millions of children worldwide. More than 800 million people did not have enough to eat before Covid-19 and this number has undoubtedly surged.

At the same time, by aggressively promoting nutritionally deficient ultra-processed foods and beverages, some of the world’s largest food companies have contributed to the conditions that have made people more vulnerable to poorer outcomes of Covid-19: obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and heart disease. We are now learning that these same conditions – which are on the rise globally - are associated with higher rates of hospitalisation and death from Covid-19.

 

Moreover, in the United States, unhealthy food marketing disproportionately targets children and teens of color, contributing to health disparities affecting these communities, as evidenced by the alarmingly high rates of infection and death from coronavirus experienced by African Americans.  

In addition to marketing, some companies engage in “corporate political activity,” reminiscent of the tactics used by the tobacco industry. This includes things like distortion of science, astroturfing and corporate philanthropy-- of the type we are seeing now-- to deflect common sense public health regulation such as marketing restrictions, clear nutrition labelling and sugary drink taxes. See examples here and here.

Too many in the food industry position themselves as well-intentioned stakeholders, allowing them to stave off regulation, improve their image, and protect their bottom-line.

What then should we make of their recent offers of help and how do we balance this with the need for resources to address Covid-19-related food insecurity?

There isn’t an easy answer.

Even the most apprehensive among us recognise that this is a time to get food to people in need and not a time for lengthy debate on food industry motives. However, that does not mean that public health advocates should not ask big companies to conduct themselves in a way that, at the very least, does not cause further harm.

 

 

Here are two minimum conditions that governments should demand of food and beverage support provided by the food industry:

  1. Choose the healthiest option and meet nutritional standards: Companies should offer the healthiest options possible, which would exclude soda and other sugar-laden beverages. All of the foods and beverages distributed should meet local dietary guidelines and nutrition standards.
  1. Don’t market to children: As these companies distribute food, they should not use this as an opportunity to circumvent pledges to not market to kids (though, even these pledges do not go far enough). This means that they must not brand anything that young people see, including product packages with cartoon characters, toys or other promotional products. More broadly, these companies should consider forgoing any public announcements of their efforts altogether – if these are indeed altruistic and not marketing activities, why do recipients need to know which companies provided food?  

Both of these are immediately doable, with little-to-no cost, and would demonstrate that the food industry is putting the needs of people ahead of its own profits.

A bolder commitment by big food companies would be to leverage their packaging and distribution channels for healthy, whole foods. As schools and restaurants close, demand for farmed goods has fallen and reports are emerging of farmers destroying milk, eggs and fresh produce because they lack the distribution capacity to get it to those in need. Food and beverage companies have some of the most sophisticated distribution networks in the world as everyone knows that the one thing you are sure to find anywhere is a Coke. Now imagine the tremendous good that could be done (including for farmers) if these companies worked out a system to get healthier food from farmers to food banks?

In addition to what the food industry can do, there is something they should not do, which is to rollback regulatory progress made pre-pandemic. Before the world was consumed with Covid-19, countries like Mexico and Brazil were advancing front-of-package warning labels on foods and beverages and other countries were advancing policies such as improving the foods offered in schools or placing taxes on sugary drinks. Food industry groups must not use this moment or their philanthropic actions to lobby sympathetic policymakers to unravel progress that was made through transparent public processes.

In our scramble to meet people’s needs in the short-term, we should be vigilant to not make things worse in the longer term for those who are hardest hit. It would be a mistake if this “all-hands-on-deck” moment gave the food and beverage industry groups carte blanche. They can and should do better than pushing out and promoting nutrient deficient ultra-processed foods. And, when this is over, we will continue to work towards constructing the food system we all deserve – one with healthy, fresh and affordable food for everyone.

 

About the author

Dr. Neena Prasad is Director of the Obesity Prevention and Maternal & Reproductive Health Programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies.