Food Industry 'Partly Responsible for COVID-19 Deaths'

Peter Russell

June 11, 2020

The food industry should shoulder some of the responsibility for excess deaths from COVID-19 because of their contribution to growing levels of obesity, health experts have argued.

They pointed to increasing evidence that obesity is being identified as a risk factor for severe illness and death from the disease.

Researchers from Queen Mary University of London said that the novel coronavirus added impetus to tackling obesity, and called on the food industry to stop promoting, and governments to force reformulation of, unhealthy foods and drinks.

Growing Levels of Obesity

The proportion of people who are overweight or obese has now reached 65% to 70% in the UK.

The COVID-19 outbreak appeared to be yet one more health problem exacerbated by high obesity levels, explained the authors in an editorial in The BMJ.

They argued that an increase in food poverty, disruptions to supply chains, and panic buying during the COVID-19 pandemic, might have limited access to fresh foods, and could have tilted the balance "towards a greater consumption of highly processed foods and those with long shelf lives that are usually high in salt, sugar, and saturated fat".

Graham MacGregor, co-author of the study, and professor of cardiovascular medicine at Barts and The London Hospital, told Medscape News UK: "The biggest cause of death in the UK is unhealthy diet… it coincides with an acute pandemic – COVID-19.

"The two interact, and this is another reason why the Government needs to do something."

Prof MacGregor, a vociferous campaigner against health harms from 'junk food', conceded that for some people, lockdown might have been an excuse to hone culinary skills in the kitchen. However, he said: "No studies have been published about what people are eating, but the general view is that, probably, people are eating less healthily."

Doughnuts to Make You Smile

He cited one example of a food manufacturer which pledged to serve half a million doughnuts, they referred to as 'smiles', to NHS staff and other critical workers.

"NHS staff have tremendous problems with obesity," he said. "It's not exactly the best thing."

The authors called on ministers to tackle obesity to reduce deaths and serious illness from COVID-19. "The Government does have plans to try to prevent obesity from getting worse – and it's all on hold," said Prof MacGregor.

Monique Tan, a researcher at Queen Mary, and co-author of the study, said: "Obesity is the major cause of type 2 diabetes which, in itself, is another potentially modifiable risk factor for more severe COVID-19. However, long planned and awaited governmental measures to address this have been put on hold due to the COVID-19 outbreak, at a time when they have never been more necessary.

"We urge the UK Government to implement Action on Sugar’s evidence-based plan, which was presented to the Prime Minister 2 weeks ago."

Feng He, another co-author, and professor of global health research at Queen Mary, said: "The world is facing two pandemics. One immediately, COVID-19, and the other a longer-term crisis with obesity.

"Clear evidence has emerged that the two pandemics interact.

"This is a major opportunity for governments and the food industry to prevent unnecessary suffering and death worldwide."

Obesity and covid-19: the role of the food industry. Tan M, He FJ, MacGregor GA. BMJ 2020. doi: (Published 10 June 2020)


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