It is estimated that DSM has already captured 17 percent of the Indian ready-made micronutrient market, says market research agency Giract. The domestic market was estimated to be worth more than Rs 660 crore in 2021, and soon it will be worth Rs 1,800 crore in a year, thanks to the mandate of the Union Government.
While DSM is open about its business strategy that includes nonprofit organizations and engagement with governments, it is not the only company that would benefit greatly from the government’s decision. Nor is their modus operandi unique. Many global food and nutrition companies are lobbying through non-profit organizations and directly to create markets in the developing world.
Meet in Mexico
The idea of ”mobilizing” nonprofits and corporations quickly took shape to drive rice fortification in developing countries in 2016, in Cancun, Mexico. International non-profit organizations gathered for a symposium on rice fortification organized by DSM and some international NGOs. The agenda on the table was big: “to create a movement that would provide a global roadmap for scaling up rice fortification.”
One of the speakers, current president of the nonprofit Nutrition Group International, Joel Spicer, said at the symposium, “The piece of policy advocacy is missing from the rice fortification agenda. We need to engage with policy makers in governments – and determine the cost of scaling up rice fortification, and what they will get.” From him and who will pay for it.
A month after the conference, Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI), the food safety regulator in India, set up a ‘resource center’ specifically geared towards fortification. One can only guess if it was just a coincidence or not. The Food Fortification Resource Center, as it came to be called, planned “matching and advocating” and worked to “create demand” for fortification.
These are business terms to describe the act of persuading governments to make it necessary for people to consume such food products. Indian and international food product companies have long been interested in the Union Government’s vast plans for food security serving more than Rs 80 crore in India. In 2016, fortified food producers set their sights on this Indian market.
A group of international nonprofits, including Nutrition International and one formerly owned and still funded by DSM, have become partners in the resource center, which serves as the government’s primary arm for immunization and relies on nonprofits for every aspect of its operation. . They have attended meetings about fortification and called for key government policy meetings, and thus played a key role in lobbying for food fortification with India’s lawmakers.
When the Resource Center released the initial document that outlined the immunization plan in 2017, the nutrition nonprofit Sight and Life included As one of the government’s partners in expanding immunization across the country. Sight and Life previously operated “under the umbrella” of the DSM and continues to be “generously” funded by the company. While the nonprofit claims to be an “independent foundation,” half of its board members—including the chair of the board of trustees—are DSM employees. As a partner, the nonprofit will participate in policy development and even have a say in notifying the food regulator’s standards for rice fortification.
The 2017 document calls for a joint advocacy campaign led by FSSAI – “bringing the credibility, credibility and trust of government” – but adds that this will be done “with financial contributions from industry and premix suppliers”.
While the government was still making plans to expand the fortification programme, the Food Regulatory Authority held a meeting with the ready-mix industry in March 2017. Minutes of the meeting acknowledged that DSM is the sole supplier of pre-mix for rice fortification. At the meeting, the companies decided on a price range for both ready-made and fortified rice grains. “The FSSAI does not set any market price for any food commodity,” the state food regulator said by mail. However, the minutes of the meeting clearly show that every ready mix supplier enumerates the price range of the ready mix that they offer.
Experts say the fact that the resource center is intertwined with corporate-funded nonprofits with commercial interests in immunization policy raises ethical questions about its work.
“The existence of the FSSAI Food Fortification Resource Center requires investigation about its role,” Dr. Arun Gupta, pediatrician and organizer of the Alliance Against Conflicts of Interest (AACI), told The Collective by mail. “The majority of FFRC’s partners are funded by the food industry; why on earth should they be asked to play a resource center role?”
FSSAI invites various stakeholders to attend meetings for a better understanding. However, they do not have any role to decide on matters related to politics etc.
However, none of the immunization meetings in the files reviewed by The Collective involved civil society or consumer groups not associated with food companies. This was a departure from meetings held on, for example, the controversial issue of front-of-pack labeling policy for the government, which involved a more diverse group of stakeholders.