PMO: States will take a call on ready-to-use food for children
New Delhi: In a relief to the growing packaged food industry, the prime minister’s office (PMO) has overruled directives of ministries for health, and women and child development, which were against providing ready-to-use food to children.
In a 4 November meeting chaired by the Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister on nutrition, the PMO said that “the decision to provide RUTF (ready to use therapeutic foods) may be left to the discretion of individual states”—thus paving the way for such foods to be provided to children suffering from severe acute malnutrition (SAM).
A copy of the minutes of the meeting was reviewed by Mint. The meeting was attended by officials from the PMO, Niti Aayog, and secretaries of both women and child development (WCD) and ministry of health.
RUTF, also referred to as energy dense nutritious food (EDNF), consists of a paste of peanuts, oil, sugar, vitamins, milk powder and mineral supplements.
Commonly used in Africa, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) supports community-based provision of RUTF.
The PMO maintained that the practice of offering hot cooked meals to 3-6 year-old children; and Take Home Ration for six months to three year old children, as well as pregnant and lactating women, will continue as per the existing scheme of Integrated Child Development Services, run by the WCD ministry.
A WCD directive issued on 28 August informed state governments that the use of RUTF food to tackle SAM was not an “accepted policy” of the Centre, referring to a February 2009 circular issued by the health ministry.
The WCD letter also pointed to concerns that the use of RUTF may replace family foods that children should normally be eating.
“It is informed that enough evidence is not available for the use of RUTF vis-à-vis other interventions for the management of SAM,” it said.
The concept of therapeutic food or ready-to-eat food has been a subject of debate in India for long.
In 2015, the government constituted the SAM alliance, consisting officials from the department of biotechnology, Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and ministry of health, to examine the effectiveness of RUTF for management of SAM children.
According to officials in the health ministry, who did not wish to be named, the findings of the inter-ministerial alliance suggested that RUTF was only “temporarily helpful” in nutrition.
The group had suggested that management of children with SAM requires a “comprehensive family-centric approach” involving caregivers, instead of a food-centric approach.
Experts found that an obsessive focus on the type of diet was diluting attention from the critical aspect of caring.
“The caretakers thought that their job was done by giving children RUTF, and hence children were not cared for properly. The study pointed to the great need for the aspect of caring which was found to be missing,” added the official cited above.
It also found that RUTF may not benefit the common household in developing appropriate food habits for children as against home augmented food.
The Health Ministry had, in fact, stressed as early as in 2009 that the use of RUTF was not an accepted policy of the government. And in 2013, the centre had asked Jharkhand to stop distributing RUTF to malnourished kids.
The RSS-affiliated Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) said it was concerned that introducing RUTF would benefit private players.
“The recently constituted working group on nutrition constituted by Niti Aayog is clearly showing the pressure coming from the global forces. There are representatives of different organisations that are promoted by multinational corporations. RUTF is not in the interest of health of the children, as earlier suggested by various studies. The policies should not be based on lobby groups and we cannot allow this to happen,” SJM’s national co-convener Ashwani Mahajan said.
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