September 5, 2010

Patents, Policy and Starvation [9:21 am]

Could a Peanut Paste Called Plumpynut End Malnutrition? [pdf] The article shows how patent law is a primary obstruction along a particularly innovative pathway.

Like most tales of great invention, the story of Plumpy’nut begins with a eureka moment, in this case involving a French doctor and a jar of Nutella, and proceeds through the stages of rejection, acceptance, evangelization and mass production. The product may not look like much — a little foil packet filled with a soft, sticky substance — but its advocates are prone to use the language of magic and wonders. What is Plumpy’nut? Sound it out, and you get the idea: it’s an edible paste made of peanuts, packed with calories and vitamins, that is specially formulated to renourish starving children. Since its widespread introduction five years ago, it has been credited with significantly lowering mortality rates during famines in Africa. Children on a Plumpy’nut regimen add pounds rapidly, often going from a near-death state to relative health in a month. In the world of humanitarian aid, where progress is usually measured in subtle increments of misery, the new product offers a rare satisfaction: swift, visible, fantastic efficacy.

Plumpy’nut is also a brand name, however, the registered trademark of Nutriset, a private French company that first manufactured and marketed the paste. It was not the intention of Plumpy’nut’s inventor, a crusading pediatrician named André Briend, to create an industry around Plumpy’nut. Briend, his friends say, was always personally indifferent to money. (Also, apparently, to publicity — he declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article.) One element of genius in Briend’s recipe was precisely its easy replicability: it could be made by poor people, for poor people, to the benefit of patients and farmers alike. Most of the world’s peanuts are grown in developing countries, where allergies to them are relatively uncommon, and the rest of the concoction is simple to prepare. On a visit to Malawi, Briend whipped up a batch in a blender to prove that Plumpy’nut could be made just about anywhere.

Others, however, quickly realized that the miracle product had more than just moral value. Nutriset has aggressively protected its intellectual property, and the bulk of Plumpy’nut production continues to take place at Nutriset facilities in France. (Unicef, the world’s primary buyer, purchases 90 percent of its supply from that factory, according to a 2009 report prepared for the agency.) Internationally, there has been a vituperative debate over who should control the means of production, with India going so far as to impose sharp restrictions on Plumpy’nut, calling it an unproven colonialist import. Elsewhere, local producers are simply ignoring the patent. [...]

[...] Patents are meant to offer incentives to innovators by giving them a time-limited right to exclusively exploit their ideas for profit. But many say that lifesaving products should be treated by a different set of rules. [...]

[...] Plumpy’nut proved so palatable and so valuable that it was only natural that other interests were now trying to take a bite. “You want to hear about the bad stuff?” [Navyn] Salem [head of the non-profit Edesia Global Nutrition Solutions, sole licensed US producer of Plumy'nut ] whispered. There was a lot to talk about. Outside the restaurant, beyond the protective cordon of appreciation, rival factions were fighting over a less innocent — though perhaps no less important — issue: who should profit? Plaintiffs were suing, accusing her partners at Nutriset of anticompetitive practices to protect their position atop a $200 million marketplace. Doctors, foreign-aid organizations and agribusinesses were staking competing claims, each invoking the interests of the world’s most fragile children. “Forget all the politics,” Salem pleads. “I’d like to erase them all.” But try as she might, she can’t wish away the questions of property and law. [...]

[...] “Our idea with Edesia is for it to really be an incubator,” said Adeline Lescanne, Michel’s daughter and the deputy general manager of the company. She said the company was investing its profits in research into a new generation of ready-to-use therapeutic foods, or R.U.T.F., as they are called in the jargon of the foreign-aid community. The new lines would be designed to prevent malnutrition, not just cure it. “It’s a kind of pity that there is not a lot of research on new R.U.T.F.,” Lescanne said. “There are only people fighting to produce this product.”

Nutriset’s critics say that line of argument is disingenuous, because the Plumpy’nut patent is so broad as to encompass just about any kind of nut-based nutritional paste. “There are other people that would like to enter into the business,” Ben Tabatchnick, who runs a New Jersey-based kosher soup company, said. “But everybody is afraid of being sued.” Last year, Tabatchnick went to France to talk to Nutriset about his plans to develop ready-to-use therapeutic foods on a for-profit basis. “I had a meeting with them that lasted about 10 minutes, and they threw me out of the room,” he told me. Afterward, Nutriset sent him a pair of ominous letters, indicating that it had found “some similarities” between Plumpy’nut and his product, Nutty Butta.

Nutriset has sent similar saber-rattling correspondence to a number of other potential competitors. Lescanne told me that Nutriset’s vigilance over its intellectual property has a benevolent purpose. [...]

“What we don’t want,” Salem told me, “is for General Mills to take over and put our Ethiopian producer out of business.” Opponents of the patent, however, say that Nutriset is just trying to avoid competition that would cut into its bottom line. Recently, a handful of companies have set up shop in countries where, because of the vagaries of various treaties, the Plumpy’nut patent is not in force. In the United States, two would-be competitors have taken a more confrontational route. They filed a lawsuit with the federal district court in Washington, D.C., seeking to have the patent invalidated.

The article closes with a quote from the non-profit company’s head that precisely highlights the entire problem:

“We’re trying to put ourselves out of business,” said Salem, still brimming with optimism, after the trip. “That would be the best-case scenario.”

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