Food makers combat rare metabolic disorders

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Food makers combat rare metabolic disorders

Every day, high school student Eom Ji-yeon brings a pack of ready-to-serve rice and special powdered milk for lunch. Eom suffers from phenylketonuria (PKU), a rare genetic disease in which the body is unable to process phenylalanine amino acid, an organic compound found in breast milk and used in foodstuff production.

The amino acid is present in all sorts of dairy, meat and vegetable products, making it difficult for people with PKU to avoid the life-threatening compound. But Eom has been able to manage, thanks to CJ CheilJedang’s Hetban-brand low-protein cooked white rice and Maeil Dairies Industry’s Absolute-brand powdered milk, produced with the country’s 200 PKU patients in mind.

Many domestic food companies have released products made specifically for people with rare diseases and conditions. Among the eight different kinds of special dry milk formula that Maeil produces is a powdered milk reserved specifically for children with maple syrup urine disease, a metabolic disorder in which the body cannot process branched-chain amino acids, resulting in impaired development or death if left untreated. The name comes from the sweet-smelling urine of patients that is akin to maple syrup or burnt sugar.

Only around 200 consumers buy this special milk, and annual sales fall between 1,300 and 9,000 cans. For Maeil, it is not a profitable business, but it has boosted its image as a socially responsible company.

The situation is similar with CJ CheilJedang’s low-protein instant rice for PKU patients. Product development alone cost CJ some 800 million won ($704,800). Expenses increase when additional production line and management costs are included. Yearly sales, though, amount to less than 50 million won due to the limited number of target consumers, but it has helped improve the company’s image.

“The Hetban-line of cooked rice was successful due to its favorable image in the eyes of consumers, so we wanted to be socially responsible without aiming for profits,” said Lee Joo-eun, director of CJ CheilJedang’s Hetban brand.

Although corporate social responsibility is becoming increasingly important for companies, the ultimate goal for most businesses is maximizing profits.

Korea Medical Foods, for example, imported protein-free, pure starch rice between 1999 and 2010. At first, the only demand came from PKU patients and their families, so the imports did not even fill up a single container. The company successfully expanded the business that it now exports food products for patients overseas.

Last month, a 6-year-old child diagnosed with nonketotic hyperglycinemia, another rare disorder where patients cannot process the amino acid glycine, was aided by domestic pharmaceutical company Handok.

The child had to eat certain food products which could not be found in the country because there was no demand for them. Consumption of other food products could cause seizures and difficulty in breathing and swallowing, even leading to death. Handok was able to secure 15 cans of NKH Anamix, a glycine-free infant formula containing essential nutrition, from the Netherlands.

After this emergency, the drugmaker formed a partnership with Nutricia, a medical nutrition affiliate of global foodstuff company Danone, to supply special products for consumers who are allergic to milk and patients with diet-sensitive ailments such as Crohn’s disease.

“Socially contributing business activities should not be interpreted as purely cost-inducing,” said Suh Yong-gu, a professor at Sookmyung Women’s University. “Companies can expand into special niche markets and augment their public image, too.”

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