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Big Food Used Global Pandemic to Aggressively Promote Unhealthy, Ultra-Processed Food & Sugary Drinks

A new report finds that the food and beverage industry giants directly and indirectly blocked. Healthy food policies while putting vulnerable consumers at even greater risk.

WASHINGTON, D.C. – A new report released by the Global Health Advocacy Incubator [GHAI] details how food and beverage corporations – such as Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Nestlé, and PepsiCo – seized the coronavirus pandemic as a unique opportunity to promote their ultra-processed foods to especially vulnerable populations around the world.

Facing Two Pandemics: How Big Food Undermined Public Health in the Era of COVID-19

Reveals how the lack of healthy food regulations worldwide enabled “Big Food” to use the global COVID-19 crisis, publicly portraying themselves as do-gooders while directly and indirectly influencing policy and putting disadvantaged people at even greater risk. These same corporations – whose ultra-processed food and sugary drinks were already contributing to rising rates of obesity, malnutrition, and diet-related diseases – used the pandemic to position themselves and their unhealthy products as essential and safe, putting those compromised populations at even higher risk of coronavirus complications and mortality. GHAI collected more than 280 examples from 18 countries between March and July 2020.

“Based on the examples we gathered, it quickly became clear that Big Food was working hard to position themselves as a crucial part of the pandemic solution,” said Holly Wong, GHAI Vice President, “while furthering their own gains by hindering the advancement of public health policies.”

The GHAI report outlines key ways “Big Food” exploited the coronavirus pandemic to their advantage:

  • They polished their public images with pandemic “solidarity actions,” while aggressively promoting their junk food and sugary drink brands. They donated ultra-processed products to children in school programs and low-income populations when these people needed nutritious foods. They also donated and promoted baby formula, breaching the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes. In South Africa, Coca-Cola collaborated with a nonprofit to donate “cooldrinks” – soft drinks – to local healthcare centers, including an obesity care center.
  • They touted unhealthy ultra-processed food and drinks as essential, safe products, equating food safety with healthy food. In Brazil, the industry group ILSI (International Life Science Institute) highlights that processed foods are allies in the fight against COVID-19 touting their high safety levels that reduce the risk of chemical and physical contamination.
  • They funded online educational platforms aimed at helping children learn during quarantine, dangerously blending marketing with educational information, and positioning these corporations as reliable sources of health-related information. An online learning platform used by schoolchildren in the US featured junk food advertising.
  • They spun a health and wellbeing narrative publicly while leveraging the pandemic as a way to delay healthy food policy. In México, they attempted to use COVID-19 as an excuse to postpone implementing a new front-of-package warning label law.
  • They promoted junk food as a tonic for tough times, linking unhealthy food with appealing sentiments such as comfort, nostalgia, and family togetherness. In Brazil, Burger King promoted its fast-food delivery service under the guise of helping people to stay safe at home.
  • They linked their ultra-processed food and drinks with charitable causes, helping consumers feel good about unhealthy purchases. In the US, Coca-Cola partnered with Uber Eats to donate one meal to Feeding America for every order placed.

These corporate interventions enabled Big Food to improve their image, strengthen their brands, ally with decisionmakers to gain political influence, and position their businesses as public-health partners during an emergency – even as they used these opportunities to advance their own unhealthy products.

Ultimately, the GHAI report underscores the urgent need for evidence-based healthy food policies and regulations, as well as stronger conflict-of-interest protocols, worldwide.

“This is a wake-up call for governments to implement evidence-based public policies designed to create healthier food environments and to protect the right to adequate food,” said Lawrence Mbalati, Programmes Manager of South Africa’s Healthy Living Alliance.

“Such policies will help consumers make healthier nutritional choices during vulnerable times like these. The bottom line is, governments must prioritize public health above private interests and profits.”


Click here for the report: https://bit.ly/two-pandemics

For media interviews, please contact Lawrence Mbalati, HEALA Programmes Manager,
082 734 5414; lawrence@heala.org. Please note, in addition to English, Lawrence speaks Xitsonga (first language), Tshivenda, Sepedi, Sesotho/Setswana and can also speak isiZulu and isiXhosa.

About the Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA)

HEALA is a  leading alliance of civil society and academic organisations fighting for every person’s right to healthy food in South Africa. Launched in 2016 by the civil society organisations and academic institutions, HEALA successfully campaigned for the Sugary Drinks Tax implemented by South African Government in April 2018.

HEALA’s current campaigns include advocating for clear warning labels on ultra-processed foods, healthy food environment, marketing restrictions of junk food and sugary drinks to under-age children in South Africa.

Calls for Finance Minister to increase health promotion levy (HPL) and include fruit juices

The Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) and Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP) call for an increase in the so-called sugar sweetened beverage tax and inclusion of fruit juices to reduce diet-related disease and death, and raise much-needed revenue amidst COVID-19 health demands and budget deficits.

Johannesburg, 4 November: Advocacy groups for healthy food in South Africa have made a strong call backed by scientific evidence for an increase from 11% to 20% of the Health Promotion Levy (HPL), and to include fruit juices in the levy.

Responding to Finance Minister Tito Mboweni’s 2020 Medium Term Budget Policy Statement last week, the Healthy Living Alliance and Rural Health Advocacy Project highlight how South Africa is grappling with both a COVID-19 epidemic and an obesity epidemic.

Nearly 70% of South African women, 31% of men and 13% of children under five are considered overweight. This is fuelling noncommunicable diseases (NCDs) such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease which put people at greater risk of severe COVID-19 illness and death. South Africa has the highest recorded number of cases and deaths in Africa. The collision of the COVID-19 and the NCD epidemics has significantly increased demands on the country’s health system.

“Sugar sweetened beverages (SSBs) such as sodas and fruit juices, as well as ultra-processed foods (industrially made ‘ready to eat and heat’ foods such as cereals and processed meats) contribute to obesity, a key risk factor for type 2 diabetes,” said Mr Lawrence Mbalati, HEALA’s programmes manager.

In 2018, South Africa was the first country in the African Region to introduce a tax on sugary beverages, a strategy which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends as an effective way to reduce sugar consumption and address NCDs. South Africa’s HPL aimed to address rising rates of overweight, obesity and diet-related NCDs, and raise much needed revenue for health promotion.

According to National Treasury data, the HPL raised R3.195 billion in the first fiscal year (April 2018 – October 2019). While the tax is currently set at 11%, HEALA and RHAP have urged the Finance Minister to increase this to WHO’s recommended rate of 20%, which could drop demand by 24%.

“We don’t know the impact of the HPL because NEDLAC’s study on this has still not been completed. We are repeating our call for fruit juices to be included. Excluding them leads people to believe that juices are healthier, when in fact the sugar content is similarly high to soft drinks. Marketing fruit juice as a ‘healthy alternative’ to children and parents puts them at risk of consuming excessive amounts of sugar. Fresh fruits are fine on their own, but when turned into fruit juice, much more fruit is needed to make up the volume. Our bodies process these additional sugars in the same way as SSBs,” he said.

“Now more than ever, South Africa will benefit from an increased HPL tax for additional revenue and help to reduce risks related to obesity,” concluded Mr Mbalati.


Issued by Healthy Living Alliance (HEALA) and Rural Health Advocacy Project (RHAP)
For media interviews, please contact Lawrence Mbalati, HEALA Programmes Manager, 082 734 5414