Calling the project an ‘ethical initiative to provide affordable and nutritious food’, Arla emphasised the programme to supply whey ingredients to Ethiopian producers to create a cheap multi-nutrient powder supplement was about complementing diets of infants up to the age of two.
"This is a complement to breast feeding, not a replacement," AFI said.
The initiative – called the Nordic Partnership – is a collaborative project with GAIN, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition, and other Danish stakeholders, such as TetraPak, the Confederation of Danish Industries, Danida of the Danish Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Dan Church Aid.
AFI’s recently published CSR report said: “Although there are more than 54 million cattle in Ethiopia, low milk yield per cow and poor distribution limit the availability of affordable dairy products in stores.”
It called for long and short-term action to combat this and described travelling to Ethiopia last year to investigate the potential of the Ethiopian dairy industry, meeting with local farmers, manufacturers, aid organisations and government authorities.
A GAIN spokesperson stressed all Nordic Partnership projects were currently being evaluated to assess viability and suitability, adding: "GAIN supports early initiation of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding through age six months and continued breastfeeding through age 24 months with the introduction of appropriate, adequately nutritious complementary foods from 6 months of age."
Charlotte Sorensen, business development manager at AFI, echoed this: “We’ll be investigating the potential for producing a nutritional supplement that will be an affordable, supplementary formulation to complement ongoing breastfeeding and fill nutrient gaps in the semi-solid food diet.
"It won’t be designed as a replacement for breast milk,” she said.
Food fortification– fighting hunger or profiting from it?
For Patti Rundall of NGO Baby Milk Action (BMA), however, the partnership is an example of multinational corporations pushing their own interests - and GAIN'S conflict of interests.
“GAIN is one of the main promoters of the ‘Business of Malnutrition’ which we consider a PR cover and entry point for corporations seeking to expand or open markets for highly processed fortified foods, supplements and snacks in developing countries. We see this as an… untested, unproven approach.”
However, in a statement to NutraIngredients, GAIN defended the Nordic Partnership as a“multi-stakeholder approach grounded in the belief that no single sector alone can tackle the global challenge of malnutrition.”
Rundall warned against food fortification and supplement programmes which had a market-led approach and whose main aim was to promote products.
“Fortification- or more accurately – nutrient restoration should be controlled and managed by governments/ those who have a duty to protect public health.
“There are successes with certain micronutrient programmes - generally of staple foods and for the whole affected population - not one [led by] one company”
She pointed to Kenya as an example of a country who passed legislation to resist private pressure.
“It is now confining GAIN to working on food fortification for the general population and we are told that GAIN is keeping to its assigned role.”
Similar to the Nordic Partnership is GAIN’s Amsterdam Initiative against Malnutrition (AIM) which brought together Dutch stakeholders in African fortification programmes, or DSM’s partnership with World Vision which gave itself a 2016 deadline to reduce stunted growth in malnourished children in Tanzania.
At the launch of the partnership in 2013, Royal DSM’s board member Stephan Tanda said: "As the world's leading producer of vitamins and other micronutrients we have a clear responsibility to help solve the globe's most solvable problem: hidden hunger.”