Baby Milk Shortage: Biden Administration Seeks to Help WIC Families

About half of all infant formula in the United States is purchased by those who use federal WIC benefits, which allow them to get formula for free but restrict the type, size, and brand they can choose.

About 1.2 million infants are on WIC, officially known as the Special Supplementary Feeding Program for Women, Infants, and Children. Each state has a contract with one manufacturer. Facing a major formula recall, Abbott Nutrition is the exclusive provider of about half of the babies in the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program.
The February recall exacerbated shortages caused by ongoing supply chain issues, leaving all parents with fewer options at many stores. President Joe Biden has come under fire for not addressing the problem sooner and for taking limited action.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday outlined steps it has already taken to help low-income families, primarily by offering waivers to states to give parents who use WIC benefits a wide range of options — if they can find other brands on the go. Shelves and their kids can easily switch formulas.

The waivers have been approved since February, and allow families to purchase alternative container sizes, including those that exceed typical caps, and formula shapes, as well as purchase alternative brands without doctors’ notes. The flexibility allows parents to have a liquid formula or ready-to-eat formula, rather than just a powder.

A third type of waiver allows a merchant to accept an exchange of formula purchased with WIC benefits.

The agency urged all states to take advantage of flexibility, repeating a call from the White House on Thursday. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack sent a letter to state health commissioners on Friday confirming the exemptions are available.

Most states use all three waivers, but Michigan uses two and Illinois doesn’t use any of them. Ten states and Puerto Rico use one waiver.

The waivers help relieve some of the pressure on low-income families, said Jerry Henchy, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Food Research and Action, an advocacy group.

“Parents will have the option to choose the available formula, rather than just being able to get one that isn’t on the shelf,” she said.

Going forward, Abbott pays out rebates through August on competitors’ products in states where WIC families are limited to purchasing their formula. This will allow parents to get the formula for free regardless of the manufacturer. It also directs supply from a production facility in Ireland to serve WIC families.

Abbott and Gerber ramp up production

Abbott said Friday it is working to increase formula supply across the board by ramping up production at other facilities. The company says it has since February imported “millions of cans” of infant formula powder into the United States from its facility in Cothill, Ireland. It also converted other manufacturing lines at a production facility in Columbus, Ohio, to produce Similac’s ready-to-feed liquid formula.

Additionally, the company says it’s offering more generous coupons so consumers can buy its products at a discount.

Meanwhile, Gerber said it has accelerated its efforts to produce more infant formula. It is a self-described “small player” in the market.

“We’ve dramatically increased the amount of infant formula available to consumers through lean production and speeding up the availability of public products to retailers and online, as well as in hospitals to the most vulnerable people,” a Gerber spokesperson told CNN Friday.

CNN’s Jane Christensen and Brenda Goodman contributed to this story.

Leave a Comment