The New York Times Magazine had a long article this week about Plumpy'nut, the peanut butter-based product designed to feed malnourished kids in emergency situations. The product is made and patented by Nutriset, a French company.
You might think that a food product aimed at saving the lives of starving kids would be uncontroversial, but not when patents are involved. Nutriset holds intellectual property rights to this product and defends them to the hilt. The company extends its patent (PDF) to line extensions of the product as well.
Patents mean that people in developing countries who want to produce their own product based on local ingredients can't do it. It also means that anyone making the product has to follow the formula, even if ingredients are expensive and not locally available.
In September 2007, I wrote about Plumpy'nut, describing how peanut butter had become the basis of a "ready-to-use therapeutic food" (RUTF) for aiding recovery of severely malnourished children in Africa:
The study itself is published in Maternal and Child Nutrition and the authors make the point that people administering this RUTF do not need to be medically trained so this therapy can be used at home. I'm always amazed when researchers discover that feeding malnourished children helps them to recover. Peanut butter is highly concentrated in calories and the investigators mixed in some vitamins along with it, so I guess it can be considered a superfood.
Since then, much has been written about the controversy over this product, particularly about its formula, cost, and sustainability.