To date, 83 countries have laws covering nutrient content in food such as salt and flour. But establishing public-private partnerships could push food fortification programmes further to meet health and social targets and help resolve issues around food safety, researchers argued at the Global Forum on Research and Innovation in Health 2015 held in Manila, Philippines, on 24-27 August.
In developing countries, the private sector should be involved in product development, marketing and distribution, while the public sector should take on the quality control of food and legal enforcement of standards, said Deepika Chaudhery, deputy regional director for Asia of the non-profit group Micronutrient Initiative, at a session dedicated to food fortification.
Becky Tsang, technical officer for the Food Fortification Initiative in Asia, said: “Mandatory fortification usually involves foods widely consumed by the general population because the goal is for a universal public health benefit.”
On the other hand, voluntary fortification by the food industry is usually market-driven, with the goal of making products more appealing to increase market share and profits, she added.
“Some voluntary fortification projects became mandatory fortification without a law, because it has become standard industry practice,” said Tsang. As an example, she cites the adding of Vitamin D to milk in the United States, which is standard practice in the industry without any law requiring manufacturers to do so
The panellists said that malnutrition and its effects could be responsible for up to 1.1 million child deaths a year, mostly in the developing world. Other side-effects include stunting and problems with brain development, which creates long-term health problems for those affected.
Denish Moorthy, technical adviser at USAID (US Agency for International Development), added: “Fortifying salt with iodine costs only 5 US cents per person a year, yet it improves cognitive ability by 30 times, and reduces stillbirths. Iron fortification costs only 12 cents per person a year, yet it increases cognitive and physical ability and lowers maternal mortality rates and infant deaths.”
Some fortification projects target specific population groups and are done as part of welfare programmes for socially vulnerable groups, for example school lunch programs or food aid.
For Jörg Spieldenner, head of the public health nutrition department of Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, any food fortification programme needs high-level political commitment, funding and a national strategy to become successful.
He said the programme should be supported by initiatives that meet local needs to ensure products will be readily available, accessible and affordable.
But Mario Capanzana, director of the Philippines’ Food and Nutrition Research Institute, told the audience that controversies have arisen about food safety and the rights of those who prefer natural, unfortified foods.
To address safety issues, Moorthy said any food fortification programme should be supported by central manufacturing facilities with quality assurance and quality control. Poor countries also need access to cheap, transferable and scalable technology, and production systems that retain nutrients even with different cooking processes, he said.
This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.