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Feature International Health

Hungry for profit

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 06 October 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c5221

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  1. Sophie Arie, freelance journalist
  1. 1 London, UK
  1. ariesophie{at}

Manufacturers of a patented food to treat malnutrition are facing challenges from other companies wanting a piece of the cake, Sophie Arie reports

The treatment of severe malnutrition has been transformed in developing countries in the past decade. Instead of bringing children back from the brink with liquid treatments in hospitals, aid workers now have a specially formulated peanut paste they can hand out in easy to use, sealed packets for mothers to feed regularly to their children.

The invention of this kind of emergency fast food has huge implications because it shifts the focus from inpatient to outpatient treatment. Put simply, it means that rather than saving tens of thousands of starving children, aid agencies now have the potential to reach millions.

Plumpy’nut—as the paste is called—is a mix of peanuts, milk powder, and micronutrients. Each 92 g packet provides 500 kcal (2 MJ) and crucial proteins and vitamins. It has been proved to be significantly more effective than previous treatments based on milk powder mixed with fresh water.1 When it was distributed to 40 000 starving children during the 2005 famine in Niger, 90% recovered.2 In 2007, the World Health Organization and Unicef declared that this kind of treatment was the best for severe and acute malnutrition in children aged between 6 months and 2 years.3

Since then there has been a kind of shopping frenzy. Unicef, by far the largest single buyer, bought 10 500 tonnes in 2009 compared with 4000 tonnes in 2005. This year it had already bought 10 000 tonnes before the Pakistan flood crisis struck.

Patent questions

Nutriset, the small French company that makes Plumpy’nut, has seen its business boom accordingly. In 2009, Nutriset’s sales were €52m compared with €16m in 2005.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Nutriset doesn’t want others making generic versions of its product. …

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