Food and drink giants fuelling the risk of Covid-19 deaths: report

10 September 2020 - 11:49 By Siphokazi Fokazi
Food and beverage companies are apparently using the Covid-19 pandemic to boost profits while putting the lives of those with non-communicable diseases at even greater risk.
Food and beverage companies are apparently using the Covid-19 pandemic to boost profits while putting the lives of those with non-communicable diseases at even greater risk.
Image: 123RF / Sarsmis

Big business has often been hailed as heroic, patriotic and innovative during the Covid-19 pandemic, with many throwing their weight to support their countries' governments during this time of need.

But a new international report says that some of the big corporates, particularly the food and beverage giants, have used this time of calamity to profit and, in the process, have put the lives of people vulnerable to Covid-19 complications at greater risk.

The report by the NCD Alliance and a UK research body, Spectrum Consortium, has warned of corporate capture, where ultra-processed food giants, soft drink producers and the alcohol industry have used clever marketing campaigns, and the so-called fostering of partnerships with governments, as a ploy to get richer. Authors of the report have cautioned that such marketing strategies would not only worsen the burden of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), but they put the health of those who already have these medical conditions at even greater risk.

The preliminary report, which has been titled: Signalling virtue, promoting harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and Covid-19, has revealed how burger companies have geo-tracked customers and lured them with lockdown freebies while soft drink giants donated thousands of cans to the homes of struggling communities in Mexico.

The authors point out that such actions risk worsening the pandemic.

“Since the early days of the pandemic, we have observed two trends: the growing epidemiological evidence that people living with NCDs are suffering worse outcomes from Covid-19, and that many producers of unhealthy commodities have rapidly adapted their strategies in an attempt to capitalise on the pandemic and lockdowns,” said Lucy Westerman, policy and campaigns manager from the NCD Alliance, who co-authored the report.

“It is a bitter irony that companies such as tobacco, alcohol and junk food, whose products increase the risk of NCDs, thereby putting people at higher risk of suffering through the pandemic, have positioned themselves as heroes and partners in the response and have interfered in public policies that seek to protect population health,” she said.

Researchers crowdsourced examples from advocacy and research specialists about the world to increase awareness and understanding of how companies have responded to Covid-19. To date, the initiative has received a total of 786 submissions from more than 90 countries around the world. A large majority of the examples concerned activities of the alcohol industry and manufacturers of ultra-processed food and drink products.

It has revealed how burger chain McDonald's in the US, through its “Lovin' Southeast Missouri” advert, asked first responders to help the fast food chain to help health- care workers by offering them a free “thank you meal” to support a local food bank.

Heineken Russia donated meals to health workers but also its energy drink — Solar Power — for doctors and nurses on night shift.

Frozen food manufacturer McCain sought to invoke a sense of civic duty in Canada, appealing to consumers to “Eat More French fries Canada!", linking a call for increased consumption with supporting farmers affected by the pandemic.

In Brazil, local brewer Karsten adapted its logo to resemble a pair of lungs — the main site of Covid-19 infection — and attached the slogan “Good beer is like air: you can’t live without it”, while encouraging consumers to follow three key tips to survive with Karsten — “isolate, use sanitiser and drink beer for fun”.  

In the US, the fast food chain Burger King invoked patriotic duty by encouraging consumers to do their part and be “Couch pot-at-riots”, waiving delivery fees to encourage people to “stay home”, and donating 250,000 burgers to nurses via a local nurses' federation.

In African countries such as Kenya, Ghana and Uganda, alcohol and tobacco companies were some of the high-profile donors to national fundraising efforts by the governments. Alcohol producers also rapidly adapted themselves to manufacturing hand sanitisers.

Katie Dain, CEO of the NCD Alliance, said there were lessons to be learnt, particularly for those leading the public health response to the pandemic.

“The [report] raises concerns about the prospect of a corporate capture of Covid-19. We see that companies are deploying these tactics pretty consistently worldwide, to ingratiate themselves with policymakers while barely concealing cynical attempts to weaken current rules and head off future policies.

“But the merciless affect of Covid-19 on people living with NCDs makes clear that policy change is more urgent than ever. To build back better from the pandemic, governments need to regulate these industries more strictly, to protect people against preventable NCDs and make our societies healthier and more resilient to future health threats.”

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