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Two charities challenge company’s patent on Plumpy’Nut

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c2510 (Published 11 May 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2510
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

    The US patent for a peanut based food product that has transformed the treatment of acute malnutrition in Africa has come under challenge by two US not for profit organisations that say they could produce similar products more cheaply.

    The California based Mama Cares Foundation and Breedlove Foods in Texas have filed a joint suit in the US District Court in the District of Columbia to try to overturn the patent held by the French company Nutriset.

    Nutriset’s Plumpy’Nut, a blend of peanut butter, powdered milk, vegetable oil, and sugar fortified with vitamins and minerals, is said by some experts to have revolutionised aid agencies’ response to malnutrition and become the standard “ready to use therapeutic food” (RUTF).

    It achieved dramatic results in Niger in 2005. Because it doesn’t need to be mixed with water, children who would previously have to be taken to hospital can be treated much more cheaply at home.

    Nutriset and its partners around the world provide the bulk of the world’s supply, but Mike Mellace, executive director of Mama Cares, said it was poised to ship its rival Re:vive product to Africa, Honduras, South East Asia, and other regions.

    The patent lawyer Robert Chiaviello is giving his services free of charge to the two organisations. Mr Mellace said that their main claim was that the patent should not have been granted because Plumpy’Nut was not novel or unique.

    “If you grab a jar of Nutella and compare it to the ingredients statement on Plumpy’Nut you’ll find that it’s virtually identical. All that they’ve done is change the mixture round and have a higher vitamin and mineral mix to get to the proper WHO specifications, which anybody could do.”

    He said that Mama Cares, a non-profit offshoot of his family snack business, had managed to reduce its costs to $0.4 (£0.27; €0.78) a unit; Plumpy’Nut costs 0.55 a unit. “If you simply took the same aid dollars you could treat 30% more children because the product is cheaper.”

    Nutriset has recently started manufacturing Plumpy’Nut in the United States, in partnership with a non-profit body called Edesia. Its network of partner manufacturers also produce Plumpy’Nut locally in Niger, Ethiopia, Malawi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Dominican Republic, India, Madagascar, and Mozambique.

    The company, which has registered patents in the European Union, the US, Canada, and 32 other countries, has sent legal letters to other producers of nut based RUTFs. It was criticised in an open letter last November by the international humanitarian organisation Médecins Sans Frontières for sending a letter asserting its intellectual property rights to the Indian and Norwegian manufacturer Compact.

    Adeline Lescanne, deputy general manager of Nutriset, said: “Some may pretend they are able to produce the equivalent of Plumpy’Nut at a cheaper price, but we fear that those solutions may not be [long lasting]. What should be the goal: to have companies manufacturing an RUTF in the North or to have them helping to develop local nutrition capacities, working with local health authorities, transferring competences to the South?

    “It’s interesting to see the plaintiffs working on new products. Our patent on Plumpy’Nut gave them motivation to seek something else. What is really needed are increased efforts to prevent malnutrition. There are lots of things to do in the prevention field.”

    Notes

    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2510

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