Can the fast-food industry survive in a more health-conscious era?

Europe and North America have a health crisis much older than the coronavirus pandemic, as obesity has become an important global issue in the twenty-first century, particularly in the Western world. Over a third of Americans are obese according to the Centre for Disease Control- the figure was at 42.4% in 2018[MC1] . Almost three in ten adults in England are obese according to the Health Survey for England[MC2] . It is thus not surprising that one in three eleven year olds in the WHO European Region are overweight or obese[MC3] .

The average weight of both Europeans and Americans has been rising for almost two decades, and it is having deadly consequences. Currently, obesity is creating concerns as it is appears to be a risk factor for the coronavirus, and the complications that may arise from it. However, being overweight has also correlated with several long-term conditions that in turn lower life expectancy (such as diabetes), so much so that the UK health secretary Matt Hancock stated that “if everyone who is overweight lost five pounds it could save the NHS £100 million over the next 5 years”.

However, what can be done to make these changes and be effective? Various measures have been introduced so as to make healthier choices more appealing, such as the sugar tax implemented by the UK in 2016[MC4]  and various expansions of the policy. This made drinks with a higher level of sugar more expensive than their healthier counterparts, thus aiming to persuade consumers to choose the healthier (and hopefully cheaper) choices, especially children. Similarly, in France a sugar and sweetener tax was introduced in 2017[MC5] , also banning the option of free refills for drinks so as to curb the consumption of unhealthy drinks. The US has yet to implement a policy to the same extent with the 2013 Nutrition Labelling and Education Act[MC6] , which ensured most foods were labelled with detailed nutritional information for the consumer to make informed healthy choices. The UK is suggesting implementing more thorough measures in the wake of the pandemic and many other nations are likely to follow suit.

The largest changes may not be in government policy, as changes in the patterns of consumer behaviour are growing. Consumers have made savings not spending at restaurants during lockdown, while many are reluctant to visit restaurants in fear of contracting the virus from others. When combined with an increased understanding of how being overweight can increase complications from COVID-19, we may see great changes in Western attitudes towards eating habits and weight. The government’s proposed “Eat Out to Help Out” scheme devised by Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak is intended to directly counteract the lack of spending by consumers in recent months.  Through providing a discount on meals per person in restaurants and a cut in VAT for the tourism and hospitality industries, the government hopes to aid the recovery of these industries after the damaging economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

However, that raises worrying questions regarding the performance and future of the fast food industry. Lockdown has already resulted in a loss of £30 billion in revenue for pubs and restaurants[MC7] . Therefore, any action taken with the intention of encouraging healthier eating for Western populations may further eat into the profits of restaurants, especially if eating at fast food restaurants is discouraged. Running reduced menus for safety, potentially being subject to advertising restrictions and not being able to seat customers all mean fast food restaurants are being hit hard. Some of the biggest names in the industry are starting to shake-Burger King has stated it may have to close 1 in 10 of its restaurants in the UK[MC8] , while McDonald’s has reported their lowest profits in thirteen years[MC9] . While this will not likely result in a closure of either of the two restaurants or the end of the industry, it does indicate other consequences. Smaller fast food restaurants may disappear due to financial losses caused by COVID-19, or be crushed between competition from massive franchises and changes in consumer behaviour.

Ultimately the fast food industry is likely to survive in a more health conscious era, especially as many brands have a loyal customer base. However, it may have to make changes to the products it is offering in future, should Western governments implement further policies promoting healthier options[MC10] .

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