Global Health Advocacy: ‘Big Food’ used pandemic to aggressively promote unhealthy food and drinks

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A report released by the Global Health Advocacy Incubator 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 compromised populations at even higher risk of coronavirus complications and mortality.

The Global Health Advocacy Incubator (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 programmes 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 non-profit 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 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 decision-makers 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 prioritise public health above private interests and profits.”

About the Healthy Living Alliance

HEALA is an alliance of civil society and academic organisations fighting for every person’s right to healthy food in South Africa. Launched in 2016 by 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.


Facing Two Pandemics: How big food undermined public health in the era of COVID-19


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