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April 15, 2010

Legal Battle Slows Nutritional Peanut Butter From Reaching Children in Need

by Lisa Bryant

A fortified peanut paste considered a silver bullet in fighting child malnutrition around the world is now the object of a transatlantic legal battle. At issue is whether patent rights for Plumpy'nut are preventing the product from reaching children who need it most.

It's a must-have for many humanitarian organizations around the world - a high-energy peanut paste packed with vitamins and minerals.  Produced by French manufacturer Nutriset, which has a patent on the product, the paste Plumpy'nut was critical in fighting the 2005 famine in Niger and helping street children survive in India.

Now, two American nonprofits have filed a suit in a Washington, D.C. federal court to get the Plumpy'nut patent rescinded. Mike Mellace, executive director of one of the groups - California-based Mama Cares Foundation - says there is nothing unique about Plumpy'nut.

"We understand what it takes to invest in development of new products and R&D. There are a lot of drug companies that spend a lot of money, time and energy to develop new products. But the merits of the patent and what they've patented...essentially it's peanut butter," he said.

Mellace says Nutriset cannot make enough Plumpy'nut to meet the global demand. And he says Nutriset's patent prevents competitors like Mama Cares from producing similar, and possibly cheaper, products. Mellace claims children are literally dying because of this alleged monopoly.

"Nutriset can't possibly expect they would be able to reach every organization around the world and sell to every organization around the world the products that they have," he said.

But Nutriset's Deputy General Manager Adeline Lescanne disputes these claims. She says children aren't getting Pumpy'nut because not enough aid has been earmarked to buy and distribute the product. "We have partners everywhere in the world and our total capacity today is 60,000 metric tons. And the demand last year was less than 30,000 metric tons. Which means there is production capacity," she said.

Nutriset says it tries to work with local farmers and manufacturers around the world to encourage self- sufficiency.  "It is really important to have a long-term view of what is happening. We are not just playing with a patent, but we are fighting to implement local production in Africa where there are needs, we are working in Latin America to develop new programs," she said.

Humanitarian groups like Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, agree Plumpy'nut is a tool in fighting child hunger and malnutrition. MSF complained to Nutriset last year about a Norwegian competitor who was blocked from transporting a similar product to Kenya. The issue was resolved.

What is critical, MSF says, is to ensure Plumpy'nut and similar nutritional products are as widely distributed as possible - at the lowest cost possible - to needy children.