The Plumpy’Nut dust-up: Nutriset’s side of the story

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. Plumpy’Nut is a lifesaving Ready-to-Use-Therapeutic-Food that was developed, and patented, by a French company called Nutriset. An American NGO and company have brought suit against Nutriset in an attempt to break the patent. I wrote about the basics of the situation in a previous post.

That post brought up more questions than it answered. In an attempt to cast some light on the situation, I talked to two people from Nutriset: Remi Vallet, and Adeline Lescanne, by phone and via email. The answers below cover my communications with both of them. Mr. Vallet is the Nutriset communications officer and Ms. Lescanne is Nutriset’s deputy general manager.

The Nutriset View:

1) What’s the deal with nutritional autonomy?

When Nutriset was founded in 1986, its mandate was “feeding children.” That changed over time – the current mandate is contributing to nutritional autonomy. “Nutritional autonomy does not mean nutritional autarky,” says Vallet, “We don’t want North Koreas. But local production benefits the local economy.” Rather, communities should be able to identify their own nutritional needs and access to what they need to meet them. This means that Plumpy’Nut should be made as close to the place of need as possible. Most Plumpy’Nut ingredients are available in Africa, especially peanuts and oil.

2) Won’t restricting Plumpy’Nut to local production drive up prices and limit access to Plumpy’Nut?

Local production is not necessarily more expensive than international production; transportation taxes are high and so are import taxes. In addition, small local NGOs may not have the capacity to handle a large internal procurement of Plumpy’Nut, but they can work with a local manufacturer.  Importing Plumpy’Nut can also face political opposition, such as what we saw in India. Local production avoids that problem.

3) How does Nutriset’s patent support local production?

It’s much more difficult to set up a factory in Africa than it is in the US. African businesses have trouble accessing capital and navigating bureaucratic obstacles. The patent allows Nutriset to work with local partners and protect them from international competition while they develop. US producers would use subsidized raw materials, and overwhelm local producers.

My take on this:

I came away from my discussion with Nutriset convinced of their good intent and unconvinced of their logic. This is clearly not a case of an evil corporation profiting from hungry kids. Unfortunately, I don’t think that matters.

Nutritional autonomy is the heart of Nutriset’s case for their patent, and I just don’t get it. I spent quite a while talking to Nutriset, but I still don’t see nutritional autonomy as a justification for the Plumpy’Nut patent. It seems to me that Nutriset could support local level nutrition through methods more effective than the Plumpy’Nut patent. For example, political opposition to imported food is not immutable; Nutriset could advocate for governments to accept the product. And if local production is no more expensive than international production, it won’t make much difference if factories take longer to set up in Africa.

Nutriset is trying to argue everything at once, here, and it doesn’t hold. If locally produced Plumpy’Nut is cheaper, more accessible to small purchasers, and less taxable, why exactly does it need a patent to protect it?