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Helping eliminate ‘hidden hunger’ with micronutrients

An interview with Dr Andreas Bluethner, Global Coordinator - BASF Micronutrient Initiatives

BASF is the world’s leading chemical company headquartered in Germany. Its portfolio ranges from nutrition over chemicals, plastics, performance products, agricultural products and fine chemicals to crude oil and natural gas. Additionally, BASF is a leading global producer of vitamins and committed to support partners in developing nutrition solutions. BASF’s engagement is based on it’s technical expertise in the fortification of staple food, so as to become part of the solution to a humanitarian challenge – vitamin- and mineral deficiencies. Dr. Blüthner heads the BASF Food-Fortification Team, a flagship CSR initiative, which is currently engaged in improving nutrition in over 40 developing countries (www.food-fortification.com).

Q: What is your personal motivation to work on food fortification?

A: It’s the beauty of combining doing good and good business sense with a topic that has been identified to be among the very best investments into humankind. It feels rewarding, if your own company acts responsibly, enables others to do so and can remain committed and scale-up its engagement – and one can take part in such a success story. The great team spirit we have and the positive feedback from countries we work with also motivates to day-by-day invest energy into ending undernutrition.

Q: What’s the thing about micronutrients that most people are unaware of? That it only takes a tiny amount of them to stave off health problems?

A: Symptoms of micronutrient undernutrition are not as visible as characteristics of ‘quantitaitve hunger’, named starvation. Vitamin- and mineral deficiencies are therefore often referred to as “hidden hunger”. But the consequences are widespread and severe, including severe health problems, birth defects, health system costs and decreases in productivity and educational opportunities. Many people are unaware of the need of micronutrients for a healthy productive life and the problems deficiencies cause. That’s why we are also working towards a better awareness for fortified foods being a affordable solution, once available in the shops.

Q: When you look around the world, beyond Cambodia, what nutritional challenges do you see for the world’s population? How are those challenges being addressed according to your study?

A: One of the major challenges is food and nutrition security in times of growing populations and increasing staple foods prices. New usage of crops and oils for fuel production shorten the supply and limit accessibility to food for the poor. Fortification, namely adding essential micronutrients to those foods, can help provide the essential nutritional intake for persons with less access to food. However, food fortification can only be a complementary measure contributing to food and nutrition.

Q: Do you see micronutrient fortification as an “invisible” way to improve public health?

A: No, food fortification has to be a visible – for example through a logo and adequate labeling – to sustainably contribute to improve the nutritional status of the people. A logo or clear labeling by producers help the consumers to choose foods with added nutritional value. Scaled and effective fortification also depends on concerted awareness raising and social marketing by governments, developmental organisations and food producers within their sphere of expertise and reach.

Q: How have your previous humanitarian and professional engagements contributed to your involvement in micronutrition and how are BASF’s requirements as a global company enhanced or improved by involvement in micronutrients?

A: In my past professional lifes my work with the German government, the UN and in particular GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, helped me to understand the great potential of public-private partnerships for delivering developmental solutions, especially in nutrition. It’s not the public sector producing food, it’s the private sector. My time with BASF tought me that a well-designed corporate social responsibility strategy enables companies to engage for society sustainably at scale – experiences we now are sharing with our corporate partners in Cambodia.

Q: How in your opinion could the Cambodian government constitute itself such that the nutritional challenges of the population are best served?

A: It’s not up to me or the private sector to advise the government about it’s priorities. However, we observe growing interest of the government to shape a nation-wide nutrition and fortification partnership with Cambodian food producers and stand ready to support public and private sector partners with our technical expertise. In other countries it has proven to be important for governments to unite different ministries to speak with one voice and to incorporate the private sector into a national fortification alliance based on a mutually owned strategy.

Q: This labeling certification, the acknowledgement that a certain food is fortified according to accepted standards – how can the government ensure that private companies use that labeling honestly?

A: A well-recognized, credible label for fortified foods is a cornerstone of a sustainable market framework for fortified foods. In most countries the food authorities monitor label claims, such as the Vitamin A content claimed, to ensure the quality of fortified foods in the interest of consumers and the public health impact. BASF has developed test kits for quick spot analysis of the vitamin A content in foods. We stand ready to share those tool kits and our expertise with participating food companies and the Cambodian government, once needed.

Q: What role do you see the NGOs playing in the advancement of food fortification and nutrition in Cambodia?

A: Food fortification is based on multiple partners’ engagement, including civil society. International NGOs, prominently GAIN, is granting countries and partners to develop domestically-owned fortification programmes. At the country level, NGOs often participate into advocacy for improved nutrition towards the government and the broader public. They also provide technical nutrition input into developing fortification frameworks with the government. But also academia is an important partner, contributing research and scientific advice, e.g. for mutually agreed fortification levels.

Q: What roles do you see the private sector playing in fortification? Do you think it is a sound business choice for companies to choose to fortify their instant noodles, their cooking oil and their drink products? Why?

A: Fortification makes sound business sense, if seen as a two-fold strategy for food companies. First and foremost, fortified products offer essential added nutritional value to customers. Companies that manage to properly market this added value can differentiate in domestic and versus import competition, in particular in favourable market environments created by the government. On top, once properly communicated, companies can realize strategic benefits from acting responsibly at the heart of their core business, which is producing healthy foods. Benefits from leadership in affordable nutrition include increased employer branding, employee motivation, partnership opportunities and relationships with government and other stakeholders. In Indonesia, one of our partners was just awarded the Indonesian Superbrand Award for his fortified oil, which shows ‘it works’.

Q: Finally Andreas, when you stack up Cambodia alongside other parts of the world, how challenged is Cambodia in nutritional deficiencies? Are there places with greater nutritional problems? Can you cite examples of how other countries have addressed micronutrient needs successfully in models that Cambodia can copy?

A: Cambodia achieved significant economic growth, but nutritional deficiencies remain among the highest in Southeast Asia. Nevertheless, we are optimistic that the food fortification partnership will help to overcome some of those challenges. Fortification can help making growth more inclusive by providing opportunities of a healthy productive life to even more Cambodians in the near future.

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