Public-private tie-ups healthy in food fortification

Copyright: GMB Akash / Panos

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  • Public-private partnerships can lift food fortification programs in developing nations
  • Such joint initiatives can help meet national social and health targets
  • In some countries, food fortification has become standard industry practice

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[MANILA] Public-private partnerships in food fortification — the reprocessing of food products such as flour and salt to put in added vitamins and minerals — can help address hidden hunger or micronutrient deficiencies that account for 1.1 million child deaths every year mostly in the developing world.

To date, 83 countries have laws mandating fortification. But establishing public-private partnerships will push food fortification programmes further to meet health and social targets, and help resolve safety issues, experts argued at the Global Forum on Research and Innovation in Health 2015 held in Manila on 24-27 August.

The private sector plays an important role in product development, marketing and distribution, while the public sector is involved in promotion, education, quality control and legal enforcement, noted Deepika Chaudhery, deputy regional director for Asia of the non-profit group Micronutrient Initiative.

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 is usually market driven, and decided upon by the food manufacturer with the goal of increasing market share or greater profits through a value-added product, she added.

“Some voluntary fortification projects became mandatory fortification without a law because it has become standard industry practice,” said Tsang, citing the fortification of milk with Vitamin D in the United States, which is regularly done without any law requiring manufacturers to fortify milk.

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 by 8 times, and lowers maternal mortality rates and infant deaths.”

Some fortification projects target specific population groups and are done as part of social safety nets or welfare programmes for socially vulnerable groups through school feeding programs or as food aid.

For Jörg Spieldenner, head of the public health nutrition department of Nestlé Research Center in Switzerland, any food fortification programme to become successful needs high-level political commitment, funding and a national strategy.

He said the programme should be supported by initiatives that meet local needs and multi-sectoral partnerships to ensure products will be readily available, accessible and affordable.

Mario Capanzana, director of the Philippines’ Food and Nutrition Research Institute noted that controversies have arisen such as on food safety and the rights of those who prefer unfortified foods and supplementation.

To address safety issues, Moorthy said any food fortification programme should be supported by central manufacturing facilities with quality assurance and quality control; cheap, transferable and scalable technology; and production systems that do not produce changes in taste, smell, texture and color; and retain nutrients even with different cooking processes.

This article has been produced by SciDev.Net's South-East Asia & Pacific desk.