The World Health Organization said Thursday it plans to recommend tighter nutritional standards in food aid for young children, a move activists say is necessary to improve donations from countries such as the United States.
The new guidelines are likely to make food aid more expensive in the short term, but the improved formulas will be more effective at reducing moderate malnutrition in children under the age of 5, the head of WHO's nutrition department told The Associated Press.
"We should be able to have the approved guidelines within a month, but certainly before the end of the year," said Dr. Francesco Branca, director of the agency's Department of Nutrition and Health Development.
Activists have long accused rich countries of dumping surplus stocks of low-quality food on poor nations, and WHO's new guidelines are the first time a high-level body has confirmed that the aid delivered to many of the world's hungry lacked necessary nutrients.
"It is a delicate issue that has a lot of implications for development agencies," Branca said.
The aid group Medicins sans Frontieres said Thursday that commonly used corn-soy blends of flour, such as those provided by the United States to poor countries, are "sub-standard" because they lack vital ingredients needed to combat malnutrition among the very young. The group, also known as Doctors without Borders, urged WHO to recommend that such products be replaced with better ingredients.
Branca said that's exactly what will happen.
"Next year there will be a completely new generation of food available for emergencies and also for the longer term situations where food aid is necessary," he said.
The new guidance will recommend increasing the amount of vitamins and minerals contained in food aid, changing some of the blending techniques, and improving the length of time such products can be stored.
Branca said the changes would require some investment in new production technologies that would increase the price of food aid. However, the resulting product will be more cost-effective at combating child malnutrition, he said.
The new guidance won't be binding, but recipients of food aid will be able to hold it up as a minimum standard with which to compare future deliveries.
Branca said changing the composition of food aid would take some time because procurement programs are set months in advance. But he said WHO would "certainly advocate for immediate action."