Tuesday, October 23, 2007

What do Patents and Peanut Butter Have to do With Starving Kids?

There's been plenty of good press about Plumpy'nut, the "miracle" food that has saved countless starving children over the past few years. But not much has been written about the patent that sustains the small French company behind this humanitarian wonder.

Is Plumpy' nut another laudable example of doing well by doing good? Or will protecting the patent lead to yet another bottleneck in yet another under-served area of global health?

My interest in this topic started innocently enough with an offhand remark directed at me at a nutrition conference I attended two weeks ago.

The gist of the remark was that Nutriset, the maker of Plumpy'nut, was protecting its investment by warning other commercial enterprises, as well as humanitarian groups, not to produce their own versions of the therapeutic food. (The recipe is dead simple: so many peanuts, so much dried milk, a little oil and some vitamins and minerals. The innovation comes from realizing, among other things, that the right mix doesn't require dilution with water, which is often a problem in the developing world.)

A little search engine digging, a few e-mails and in-person conversations later, and it feels to this longtime health journalist that there is some meat in this story.

So, now I'm collecting information, original sources, suggestions for people to talk to, etc, at tightly focused web site called, straightforwardedly enough, Patents and Peanut Butter.

I'd like it to be a group effort--sort of an experiment in collaborative reporting. (I've been reading Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.) But am prepared to do a lot of the heavy lifting myself until things get going.

By creating a separate blog, I hope to counter some of the chaotic, hit-or-miss nature of the Web. But who knows, that may turn out to be an entirely unnecessary step. The great thing about being at Harvard for a year, is that I can try new things out while the Nieman Foundation foots the bills.


Anonymous said...

It's not clear to me exactly what restrictions Nutriset puts on it's product. There are two items that are protected. One is the product itself protected by multiple patents filed in many African countries + the EU and the USA and Canada (among others). The other is the brand name Plumpy'Nut(R)as a registered trademark. The trademark issue is not important -- you can call the product by another name.

In Malawi, there are two producers of RUTF essentially using the same formula. One producer has machinery specified by Nuttriset and they are either a franchisee or a licensee. (The terminology is important, but I don't know what strings are attached to their agreement.) The other producer has developed its own processing equipment, produces the same quality product, and is providing about the same volume of product to Malawi. However, they say they are neither a licensee nor a franchisee, but that they ARE allowed to produce RUTF without any opposition from (or perhaps even with agreement of) Nutriset. They are not using the Plumpy'Nut(R) brand name. A third company is a commercial food processor and has been producing nutritional supplements for years. They have a product sold widely in grocery stores that is very similar (has soy milk instead of dairy milk solids and is lactose free). It has about the same energy value (KCal/100g); same or similar level of vitamin and mineral supplements; same or similar protein, carb, and fat content; also predominantly peanut and sugar-based; also ready-to-eat and no water added... but they definitely have no license from Nutriset. In fact, I've been told their product actually pre-dates Plumpy'Nut(R)- I have not been able to validate this. Their product is promoted as a supplement and not as a total food replacing other food. It is not promoted for Severe Acute Malnutrition (SAM) but is positioned as "The most efficient energy and weight accelerator!" See more at their site: http://www.sibusiso.net/. They seem to now be owned by a major Malawi food processer called Rab Processors Ltd. See http://rabmw.com

Those are some thoughts.

Christine Gorman said...

Thanks RUTF blogger!

The information about Rab Processors, Ltd. is particularly important as their product may constitute prior art, which would thereby invalidate Nutriset's patent.

I plan to visit Malawi next June/July for the field work of my Nieman Fellowship. I have a feeling all three companies are going to be on my list of places to visit!

gys love peanuts said...


We are base in South Africa we started a peanut factory about 12 years ago out of my parents garage. We are looking for someone to help us on info how to make plumpy peanut butter There is so many hungry children we can help is Africa Please mail me at jodifoods.gys@telkomsa.net
thanks gys

Christine Gorman said...

Dear Gys,

I do not have any more information other than what I have posted on the web about how to make Plumpy'nut.

You may want to contact your local peanut industry council or Unicef in South Africa about what you would need to do in South Africa.