Image courtesy of the New York-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Genitourinary (GU) Oncology Program
Since the Covid-19 pandemic took over the world, the food and beverage industry has been raising its profile by engaging in highly publicized donations. Last month, for example, Coca-Cola announced that they were “supporting communities and health professionals” by “donating over 2.5 million liters of beverages to medical centers” in Latin America. Similarly, Nestlé said that they were “[p]roviding support to medical institutions, food banks, food-delivery organizations and relief organizations in the frontline of the fight against the pandemic.”
Civil society organizations have been documenting such donations. For instance, El Poder del Consumidor, a non-governmental organization from Mexico, denounced corporations for taking advantage of the pandemic to market junk food and sugary drinks, and issued recommendations for the government to regulate donations in this space. They also reported that the industry of breast milk substitutes has launched campaigns to deliver infant formula to vulnerable communities in Veracruz and Southeast Mexico.
These donations are branded as good deeds against the backdrop of growing concern about the socio-economic consequences of the current health crisis. Last month, Mr. Arif Husain, chief economist at the United Nations Food Program, published an op-ed in the New York Times about global hunger following the pandemic. He warned that the loss of income could increase the number of people suffering acute hunger and called for political solutions to conflicts, climate adaptation on the ground, and the reduction of income inequality.
However, hunger is not the only problem on the horizon. Obesity is also a big cause of concern, given that it is a risk factor for non-communicable diseases (NCDs), such as cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, and cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) has called obesity a global epidemic, highlighting that it is “one of today’s most blatantly visible – yet most neglected – public health problems.” In this sense, there is a double burden of malnutrition, defined as “the coexistence of undernutrition along with overweight and obesity, or diet-related noncommunicable diseases, within individuals, households and populations, and across the lifecourse.”
It is no secret that the consumption of ultra-processed foods is one of the main drivers of the obesity epidemic (and thus of diet-related NCDs), and that the food and beverage industry aggressively markets such products, as highlighted by Mariel White, Claudia Nieto and Simón Barquera in their article Good deeds and cheap marketing — The food industry in the times of COVID-19. Considering the interaction between the obesity epidemic and Covid-19, in which one negatively interacts with the other, exacerbating the course of disease, the authors argue that it is necessary to reframe the food and beverage industry’s role in the pandemic (and in society).
Corporate donations in the times of Covid-19 are only the newest piece in the puzzle of actions to position brands – and harmful products – in the market. Mariel White, Claudia Nieto and Simón Barquera are spot on when they go beyond the current pandemic and shed light on our overall ability to respond to health challenges: “there is no doubt that the food and industry’s strategies are working against this goal and should be effectively regulated.” May this be one of the many lessons from this pandemic.