Millennium Post

The malnutrition bazaar

India is shouldering a huge burden of malnutrition – in the absence of government figures, a dipstick survey by non-profit HUNGaMA in 2012 suggests that 59 per cent of the country’s children could have stunted growth and 42 per cent could be underweight.

While the government is still struggling to tackle the problem, the food and nutrition industry sees it as a burgeoning market and is rushing to tap it, by hook or by crook.

One such attempt became evident on 28 June when British medical journal Lancet launched a compilation of its articles on maternal and child nutrition in Delhi. The series had angered health activists ever since the articles were published online on 6 June.

Several nutrition experts and members of the Indian Academy of Paediatrics had warned the government even before the Lancet series was launched in India, that it ‘should not be allowed to become an opportunity for commercial exploitation of malnutrition’. The articles outline 10 key interventions and claim these can help reduce global prevalence of stunted growth and acute malnutrition by 20 per cent and 60 per cent. But majority of the interventions include supplementation with micronutrients or ready-to-use therapeutic food.

The articles also call for engaging with private players to achieve the goals. Some of the authors have links with big food multinationals and the micronutrient industry. One of the lead researchers, Robert E Black, is on the boards of Micronutrient Initiative, Vitamin Angels, the Child Health and Nutrition Research Initiative, and a member of Nestle Creating Shared Value Advisory Committee (NCSVAC). Another researcher, Venkatesh Mannar, heads Micronutrient Initiative and member of NCSVAC.

Nestle is the largest food company in terms of revenue and has been in controversy in several countries for promoting its baby food products by undermining breastfeeding. In India, a court in Delhi has charged it for violating the Infant Milk Substitutes, Feeding Bottles and Infant Foods Act, 1992.

Even some of the articles Lancet used as reference are equally bogus. An article by Veena Rao, published in British Medical Journal in 2012, claimed that India’s national policy does not allow private players to produce cheap fortified complimentary food for children.

Later, it came to light that Rao was associated with Britannia Nutrition Foundation of Britannia Industries Ltd. The conflicts of interest in such publications need to be considered particularly because these have the potential to influence policy making. India does not have a mechanism to check this.

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