Savior or Candidate for “Worst Patentee”? Nutriset
Last Sunday’s New York Times magazine had a provocative article about Plumpy’nut, a nutritive peanut paste that is foil-packaged so it does not need refrigeration. When eaten by malnourished children it can “cure” them in a relatively brief period of time. It is being touted as nearly a miracle food for countries in Africa or Central America, since peanuts are a cheap commodity in many of these countries and the product also does not require reconstitution with water.
However, Nutriset, a French company, is described as having patented this product essentially world-wide, and is characterized as aggressively defending its patents. (A copy of the U.S. patent is available at the end of this post.) Apparently, it has licensed the product in two African countries, but wants to make it in France. The advantages to, not just the health, but the economies of third-world countries, if they could manufacture and package the product locally, are clear. In fact, one organization has built a “factory” in Haiti and is making the product there. (Probably no Fed. Cir. equivalent to worry about.)
While recipes are notoriously difficult to patent in the U.S., it can be done, and the article reports that there is a U.S. patent on Plumpy’nut, which doesn’t expire until 2017. It is apparently the subject of an inter partes reexamination request, and so may not be around long. But if it is cancelled, the plot only thickens. The author speculates that big food companies, like General Mills or Cargill, may want to get into the business of manufacturing this or similar supplements and selling them to relief organizations, who would do the distribution. This may benefit a lot of children but it won’t do much for economic development in these countries and ultimately, may just provide lots of older and larger stomachs that need to be filled with something more substantial than fortified peanut butter.