Ethics in the food industry

By Linda Jackson on 22 June 2020

While most of us were focussed on rushing around getting extra toilet paper (not sure why?) prior to the national COVID 19 pandemic lockdown, the national department for statistics, STATS SA released their latest cause of death report on 26th March 2020.

What kills most South Africans?

Tuberculosis was the leading underlying cause of death for males, accounting for 7,6% of male deaths while the diabetes mellitus was the leading underlying cause of death amongst females accounting for 7,3% of female deaths. Tuberculosis was the leading cause of death over the three-year period 2015-2017 and diabetes mellitus remained the second leading cause of death.

Given that we are all very focussed on a communicable disease right now, COVID 19, this may seem less important. However, The Lancet released this information on 18 May: “The ongoing COVID-19 outbreak has led to an unprecedented health crisis. Hence, it is crucial to identify individuals who aresusceptible to developing severe COVID-19 and could require hospitalisation, especially in the ICU.

Evidence is emerging that obesity-related conditions seem to worsen the effect of the virus. Studies from Chinese cohorts of patients with COVID-19 have identified several risk factors of severe COVID-19 including age, cardiomyopathy, and obesity-related complications such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension."

And today’s news: “According to an NHS study, almost one in three of all deaths from coronavirus among people in hospital in England during the pandemic have been associated with diabetes.

People with type 1 diabetes – the autoimmune form of the disease – are three-and-a-half times more likely to die if they catch Covid-19 than non-diabetics, while type 2 diabetics – those with the form closely linked to being overweight – are twice as likely to die as non-diabetics. Nine out of 10 diabetics have type 2, and many are obese.”

The role of the food industry in curbing the spread of non-communicable and communicable disease

So, what does that have to do with the food industry? We cannot be blamed for the eating habits of the South African population! Or can we?

While this may be a medical discussion, it does become an ethical discussion too.

As the food industry, we do determine what people put in their mouths – the quality and nutritional value of this food and in some cases, the quantity of sugar, sodium and other ingredients that can have a harmful effect on health. So, what should we be giving them to eat? The answer is not in the Product development department, it is a business ethics decision.

What is business ethics?

Simply put, ethics involves learning what is right or wrong, and then doing the right thing.

The ethics guy puts it this way:

  • Do No Harm
  • Make Things Better
  • Respect Others
  • Be Fair
  • Care

The COVID 19 pandemic has made us very aware of how our actions can affect our fellow citizens. Taking responsibility for our actions has not just been about keep ourselves safe but also our neighbours, employees and even strangers. Perhaps it is time to re-look at our attitudes to our customers and consumers – do we really care about their health and how are we doing no harm and making things better?