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BW Businessworld

Treading The Fine Line

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It pays to keep away from private-public partnerships, especially if you plan to ‘only' create awareness on a topic that complements the business you are in. Last week, foods giant Nestle was probably chewing hard on this thought. The company found itself in an uneasy position in India, when  it received unfavourable media coverage for a nutrition-awareness programme that Nestle India had launched in schools in association with universities such as Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana; National Dairy Research Institute, Karnal, Haryana; University of Mysore in Karnataka; and the GB Pant University for Agriculture and Technology, Pantnagar, Uttarakhand.

The programme modules spelt out basic knowledge relating to foods: the manner in which food is digested, how one can improve the balance of nutrients in diet, how cooking practices can improve nutrition, the need for food hygiene, sanitation and exercise. The universities provided inputs on making the modules relevant to specific locations. PAU indicated that iron deficiency is high in that region. So, the modules stressed on consumption of green vegetables to address the iron deficiency. Mysore university suggested that since the general trend is to consume food with high cholesterol, the modules in that region should stress on balanced diets and smart cooking practices.

But an RTI application filed by the Breastfeeding Promotion Network of India to these universities evoked a response from Nestle that said: "The contents of the programme are of a commercial and confidential nature and the disclosure of which may harm our competitive position." This led to other questions. If there are competitive interests, was Nestle using public-funded institutions to further its brand promotion? In that case, were these universities being adequately compensated (at Rs 2.5 lakh)? Many felt the universities have sold out rather cheap for supplying their research inputs to Nestle. In a response to BW, Nestle said: "The wording of the earlier letter seems to have created a misunderstanding... the limited purpose of the confidentiality clause was to ensure that the Nutrition Awareness Programme was not exposed until it was ready for public roll out."

But has Nestle been indulging in a quasi-marketing exercise by talking to children directly, that too through schools? As per recommendations of the 63rd World Health Assembly, on the marketing of foods and non-alcoholic beverages to children, the WHO member states only endorsed prevention of  marketing foods that are high in saturated fats, trans-fatty acids, free sugars, or salt in settings such as schools, pre-school centres or even playgrounds and paediatric services.

Then in August 2010, the health and family welfare ministry and the women and child development ministry issued a joint letter to state governments coming down heavily on the trend of baby food companies offering inducements to doctors by sponsoring seminars, distributing gifts to paediatricians, and so on. In this instance, Nestle cannot be pronounced guilty on any of these two counts. Yet, it flirted with danger on two separate cases. First, Nestle and the universities probably assumed that they could adopt a private business-like approach and keep things under wraps in a public-private partnership till the project is up to scale. Second, the joint initiative did not seem like a partnership of equals, when PAU, an independent public body, actually checked with Nestle executives if it could share  information about the programme under Section 6 of the RTI.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 07-02-2011)