Have major food companies ‘cashed in’ from Covid 19?

Fast food giants, ultra-processed food makers, tobacco manufacturers and alcohol brands are said to have “leveraged the pandemic for commercial gain”. This is concerning because evidence that non-communicable diseases (NCDs) such as obesity, lung damage and diabetes increase the risk of complications from Covid19, according to a new report entitled ‘Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm’

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Health Halo

These companies are accused of boosting lockdown sales through attempts to create “health halos” on their products through donations of food to front-line workers or free gifts for NHS staff. When your business is food PR even if genuinely well intentioned, can turn sour.

Professor Linda Bauld, expert in public health at Edinburgh University said a reason many countries were hit hard by COVID19 was the “fundamental vulnerability of their populations” from NCDs and many of which are “directly caused by the products that these companies make.”

Acts of community or not?

Over 750 examples from over 90 countries of marketing and lobbying by major food companies were recorded by researchers during the pandemic.

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These included the alcohol industry successfully lobbying the UK Government to include off-licences in ‘essential shops’ staying open during lockdown. Or the less direct such as offering free masks with purchases to “protect you and your kids”, waiving delivery fees to encourage people to “stay home”, donating ‘thank you meals’ to healthcare workers, and encouraging them to share selfies about it on social media.

The perception is, that rather than this being an act of community, it was to raise “viral visibility at a time when they were reducing spending on their marketing budget in other ways”. Not something that any food PR department would want to happen. Using agencies such as Leapfrogpr food PR agency could help convey good intentions clearly.

Suspicion of future intent

Many, such as Lucinda Westermanm – policy manager at the NCD Alliance, are sceptical of “how rapidly brands have adapted their labelling” whilst “those exact same industries are resisting evidence-informed nutrition and health labelling of these products.”

With warnings from the authors that there’s also evidence of these producers using the crisis “as an opportunity to shape policies in the longer term” such as the Scotch Whisky Association suggesting the Scottish Government engage in “sustained dialogue” on “smart taxation’ to “support the post-Covid-19 recovery” in return for the abandonment of “proposed advertising restrictions”.

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